|Revision 1||March 1993|
|The Alternative Orange. March 1993 Vol. 2 No. 4 (Syracuse University)|
|Revision 2||September 14, 2000|
|DocBook XML (DocBk XML V3.1.3) from original.|
At present, marxist theory of homosexuality must develop out of a critique of the most advanced non-marxist theory. Queer theory represents one of the most radical (if not the most radical) currents in contemporary gay and lesbian theory, and, therefore, this essay will outline the rudiments of a critique of queer theory.
I would like to begin by citing a passage from an article in the November 1992 issue of Living Marxism which offers a trenchantly critical analysis of the state of “the queer movement”:
The queer movement has arisen out of disappointment and anger at the limitations of gay politics. The past decade has seen a major setback for the lesbian and gay movement. Not only has AIDS been the source of major tragedy within the gay community, but it has also become the focus for an anti-gay backlash. Suddenly, gays and lesbians found that the so-called gains made in the past two decades simply crumbled away. In the face of increasing public hostility and violence, many homosexuals were forced back into the closet. It was in this context that the queer movement was born.
In 1990 activists in New York formed Queer Nation. They eschewed respectability and what they termed the ‘assimilationist’ strategy of the mainstream lesbian and gay movement. Instead they flaunted their differences with straight society. Queer activists would walk into ultra-straight bars, announce ‘we will not be confined to gay bars when we socialise’ and stage a mass ‘kiss-in’. The night after a bomb blast in a Greenwich village gay bar, 1000 queer activists marched behind a banner which read ‘Bash back’. The tactics of Queer Nation New York were emulated by other Queer Nation groups across North America. In Britain queer activists set up Outrage and organised stunts like the ‘kiss-in’ at Piccadilly Circus and a ‘queer march’ on Downing Street.
But behind the confrontational tactics of queer activists lies a pessimism and fatalism that is as reactionary in its consequences as the search for respectability that they reject. Frustrated by the lack of advance for any rights, advocates of queer simply make a virtue of their oppression. ‘Queer’, writes Richard Smith, ‘is about recognising how different we are from straights’ (Gay Times, May 1992). Accepting oppression as inevitable, queers make the best of it by insisting that they don’t want acceptance. The queer insistence on difference is no radical assertion of gay rights, but mirrors traditional right-wing arguments that social differences are as inevitable as the natural ones we are born with.
In the absence of any broader strategy to challenge oppression, queer tactics serve only to raise hostility and further isolate lesbians and gays. Confronting straights in a bar is all very well in Greenwich Village or San Francisco; in Arkansas or Arizona it is a tactic that is likely to end up with you in the morgue…
The advocates of queer appropriate the most problematic aspects of gay politics while ditching its positive elements. The gay movement based its strategy on ‘coming out’ — the idea was that by making themselves visible, lesbians and gay men could challenge oppression. Queer politics simply reforges the ‘coming out’ strategy in a more confrontational fashion. But while the gay movement, initially at least, sought to locate the fight against oppression as part of a larger social struggle, the advocates of queer express a despair born out of the failure of that struggle. The queer assertion of ‘difference’ is an admission that there is no possibility of a common struggle with other groups in society.
Disenchantment with social change has meant that queer politics has increasingly turned to cultural struggle as a strategy for liberation. ‘Culture’, writes queer theorist Paul Burston, ‘becomes both the object of study and the site of political critique’ (Modern Review, October-November 1992). Queer theory for Burston ‘concerns itself with the ways in which cultural texts (books, plays, films, television, pop music, etc.) help to shape sexuality. While queer-bashers take to the streets in increasing numbers, queer theorists take to their armchairs to ‘deconstruct’ Eastenders and ‘undress’ Madonna. Despite its image of militancy and activism, queer is more removed from the real world than was much of the lesbian and gay movement.
The queer hostility to the lesbian and gay movement comes not from an aversion to its politics, but from frustration at its failure. As a result, when queer activists demand to ‘bash back’, their targets are just as likely to be other gays as anyone else. Hence the queer tactic of ‘outing’ — threatening to expose closeted gay politicians and public figures. Elements of the queer movement have taken this political strategy to its logical conclusion. ‘We will not tolerate any form of lesbian and gay philosophy’ claimed the Toronto queer magazine Bimbox last year. ‘We will not tolerate their voluntary assimilation into heterosexual culture… if we see lesbians and gays being assaulted on the streets, we will join in’. Queers here join hands with queer- bashers in a common assault on lesbians and gays.
Lacking a vision of the possibility of changing society as a whole, the assumption of queer politics is that equality is simply aping ‘white, heterosexual values’. Equality, for queers, is itself a form of oppression. A movement which promises radicalism, ends up by proclaiming the most reactionary message of all — that there is nothing that can unite people, whether straight or gay, in a common struggle for sexual and social equality. (Living Marxism, November 1992, 39)
Although I think this Living Marxism article correctly identifies some of the most serious problems with and limitations of the contemporary queer movement, I also think its critique is itself too dismissive and too simplistic. Seemingly, according to this Living Marxism article, present queer theory and practice is simply reactionary in relationship to past gay and lesbian liberationist theory and practice, and seemingly, therefore, the solution to this problem would be for queers simply to return to those more progressive past strategies and tactics by simply assimilating their “narrow” kinds of struggle into “broader social struggles” and by leaving the narrow confines of the academy. This is the kind of schematically formulaic response that has for so long discredited marxists among other radicals engaged in the fight for radical social change. It is also an ultimately anti-intellectual position which undermines the effectivity of marxist contribution to a potentially reinvigorated — a reimagined and reinvented — socialist politics for the 21st century. Marxists cannot afford merely to dismiss the importance of institutional struggles — nor can they afford to equate what is effective in mass struggles organized with the aim to produce alternative public spaces — and alternative public subjectivities — with what is most effective for institutional struggles organized to produce counter-public spaces — and from counter-public subjectivities. In particular, marxists cannot afford simply to retreat, out of suspicion, from intervention within the academy, and especially the emerging critical study of contemporary late capitalist culture. Not only does the academy exercise a tremendous force in late capitalist society that marxists must engage, but the same is also true of the hegemonic power exercised by late capitalist cultural industries in integrating oppressed and exploited subjects into a willing acceptance and conformity with the terms and conditions of their oppression and exploitation. In these respects, queer theory and practice is ultimately a more concrete form of theory and practice than the kind of traditional marxist position maintained by the writers of the Living Marxism article: queer theory and practice shows a better grasp of the fact that even though capitalism remains capitalism, capitalism also continues to develop and change: therefore, struggles against oppression and exploitation must change as the terms and conditions of oppression and exploitation change.
I agree with the authors of the Living Marxism article that queer theory and practice is — at least in part — a response to defeat and even despair, and that it is, at least so far, even in its most outlandishly offensive moments, an ultimately very much defensive brand of radical gay and lesbian liberationist struggle. Yet I also think that the queer movement is “radical” gay and lesbian liberation within the context of the concrete reality of the present state and direction of the overall movement for gay and lesbian liberation.
Gay and lesbian liberation certainly must become more thoroughly, militantly, and sophisticatedly radical (“radical” in the sense of arising from or going to the root or the source; carried to the furthest limit; advocating and enacting sweeping, fundamental, and total change) in order to struggle effectively not only against heterosexism and homophobia but also in order to make a significant contribution to what David Fernbach has described as the greater struggle for “human survival” (the struggle for socialism as opposed to barbarism, for freedom versus totalitarianism, for salvation versus destruction, for life versus death). This radicalization of gay and lesbian liberationist struggle requires as well that this movement ultimately unite with other radical movements in a broad revolutionary struggle to abolish capitalism and to build not a new imperialist but rather a new socialist world order. Yet this cannot happen merely by declaring it should. The conditions of possibility for these developments must be created — and by drawing upon and making use of the best and most advanced materials presently at hand. This means pushing queer praxis to develop its most radical tendencies to their furthest logical conclusion, and to do this by steadily breaking with more and more of the ties that bind queer praxis to more conservative kinds of gay and lesbian liberationist praxis.
The “conservative” wing of the gay and lesbian liberation movement today is still largely assimilationist: it seeks little if anything more than acceptance and toleration of its “lifestyle” — a “lifestyle” largely parallel to and not very different from the straight mainstream. Conservative gay and lesbian liberationists still contend that “homosexuals” are “just like” heterosexuals in every way but the biological sex of the choice of with whom they “prefer” to “have sex.” This conservative wing is willing to accept and tolerate its own marginalization and subordination in exchange for a limited, fragile, and ultimately elusive and illusory toleration and acceptance by straight society.
What is most important in this stage of the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation is that the “radical” — and this is today, by and large, the “queer” — wing of the gay and lesbian liberation movement refuse to be led into an ultimately very similar position as that deliberately and naively sought by the conservative wing. This requires that radical gay and lesbian liberationists work to develop a mode of emancipation which supercedes a mere reversal of the terms which define its mode of oppression. Instead of accepting the terms by which homosexuality and homosexuals are excluded, expelled, and ostracized from the dominant society and culture, and merely — rhetorically — inverting these, and instead of remaining content to develop a merely — or largely — separate, self-excluding, and self-ostracizing sub- culture, a genuinely radical gay and lesbian liberation movement must begin to reject — by defying —the terms which define its marginalization: it must rebel against exclusion, expulsion, and ostracism of gays and lesbians. And yet, as queer praxis most often clearly recognizes, the aim should not be equal inclusion within that which at present exists (which is impossible, even if desired), but rather seizure of the power to radically transform what exists: the aim of queer praxis must be to transform straight society and culture so as to make it — straight society and culture — as queer as possible, in as many places as possible, and with as much deep and lasting impact, including for straights, as possible. Only this kind of strategy works effectively to oppose division of society into straight majority/heterosexist dominant and queer minority/ homosexual subordinant.
Real liberation depends upon radical gay and lesbian liberation fighting to remake and transform the dominant sexual culture into a radical gay and lesbian — a queer — culture, as part of a larger movement of general social transformation, and as a transitional stage in the long struggle towards the supersession altogether of oppressive divisions of human beings along lines of gender and sexual orientation. This requires development of a radical gay and lesbian culture — a radical queer culture — with a positive content that is both genuinely critical of and ultimately superior to straight culture: a radical queer movement can afford to settle for no lesser goal than to work to succeed straight culture as the newly dominant culture of a genuinely sexually liberated society, and in so doing to lead the way forward towards general sexual emancipation.
Queer radicalism has made important — and far from negligible — strides in moving the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation beyond both struggle for mere toleration and acceptance as a lesser and unequal “minority population” and struggle either for assimilation or separatism, ending up either ghettoized “within” or ghettoized “without.” Yet queer radicalism today remains damagingly complicitous not only with these more conservative approaches and tendencies, but also with the forces — the interests — which depend upon, require, and enforce the reproduction and maintenance of institutionalized heterosexism and homophobia. Effective marxist critique of queer theory and practice must be directed as a contribution towards the supersession of this damaging complicity.
Let us now turn towards defining the essence of what is queer theory: what, in other words, is queer about queer theory. Queer theory is a contemporary theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation, and yet it is not simply the contemporary theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation, theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation in — and for — the 1990s. For one thing, queer theory is a product primarily of work within the humanities and not the social — or natural — sciences. Queer theory is, therefore, one kind of contemporary theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation among a number of other kinds of theory concerned with this same object. And yet it is not simply one kind of theory among many. Queer theory is “advanced” and “up-to-date” theory — queer theory registers changes in the relationship between gay and lesbian liberationist struggle and the dominant culture of late capitalist American society that other, contemporary kinds of “gay and lesbian theory” do not. And yet it is also not simply or strictly the only or the most advanced and up-to-date theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation. Queer theory is a “radical” kind of theory, and yet, once again, it is not simply or strictly the only or the most radical theory of gay and lesbian life and liberation.
Queer theory is postmodern theory of gay and lesbian (homo)sexual and (homo)social identity, community, culture, and struggle of and for liberation. Yet even this is still insufficiently precise, because queer theory is the quintessential incarnation of ludic postmodern theory within the emergent transdisciplinary field of cultural studies.
In order better to understand what I mean by this claim, it is useful briefly to define the terms we use. I will begin, first, with “the emergent, transdiciplinary field of cultural studies.” It may seem difficult precisely to define this field because it is still “emergent” (new) and because it is “transdisciplinary” (works across, and against, a traditional logic which has defined fields of study within the bounds of distinct “disciplines,” each with its own distinct objects, methods, categories, interests, and concerns). In addition, Cultural Studies not only encompasses a diverse range of both different kinds of studies of “culture” and many diverse ways of studying “culture,” but also divides increasingly sharply between studies that work primarily to “appreciate” and thus conserve, versus studies that work primarily to “critique” and thus transform the cultural status quo. Yet, I think it is nevertheless possible — and useful — to give a general definition of Cultural Studies that can account for its newness and unorthodoxy as well as its diversity and division.
Cultural Studies represents the principal direction of supersession of traditional literary study in the humanities (and especially English) departments of the higher educational academies of advanced capitalist “Western” societies (in particular, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada). Cultural Studies is concerned with the “writing” and “reading” (and “rewriting” and “rereading”) of all “texts” of culture, and not just conventional “literary” texts — or, even more broadly, all kinds of “artistic” and “aesthetic” texts. Cultural Studies addresses all discrete “objects” which constitute (possible) sites of signifying activity as “texts” which are “written,” and can thus be “read” — and “rewritten” and “reread.” Cultural Studies thus inquires into the meaning and significance of institutions and discourses and relations and practices within — and across — all areas of culture (and not just within literary culture), as well as within (and across) all of the multiple “cultures” and “subcultures” that exist within the entirety of contemporary late capitalist culture.
“Appreciative Cultural Studies” tends towards a largely (or at least ultimately) abstract and formal concern with cultural semiotics. “Critical Cultural Studies” engages — and pressures — the contradictions, and the resolutions (and dissolutions) of (prior) contradictions which constitute the cultural text as a dynamically concrete object, focusing upon the (social and historical) conditions of possibility and the (social and historical) uses and effects (effectivities) of this particular intersection of contradictory forces and tendencies (and resolutions and dissolutions). Critical Cultural Studies inquires into the ways in which the “reading” (and “rereading”) and “writing” (and “rewriting”) of texts of culture contribute to the production and reproduction of social subjectivities, and the ways in which this production and reproduction in turn contribute towards enabling particular political ends and interests while simultaneously disenabling others.
Within this field of cultural studies, queer theory represents the “quintessential incarnation” of ludic postmodern theory because it is the “most perfect embodiment” of what happens when the dominant tendencies of ludic postmodern theory are carried to their furthest logical conclusion. The use of “incarnation” — “embodiment” — here is quite deliberate, because, according to queer theory, radical resistance, disruption, and subversion arise from the use of bodies as arguments, bodies as critiques, and bodies as theories insofar as these bodies act to create a scandalous public spectacle in their playful performance of the giving and receiving of sensual and erotic pleasures of the kinds and in the forms and to the degrees which the “hegemonic” — the “straight” — culture defines as “strange,” “abnormal,” “unnatural,” “dangerous,” “shocking,” and “perverse.”
“Postmodern theory” is a nexus of contemporary discourses which attempt to account for the continuities which connect and, especially, the discontinuities which disconnect what is perceived as the present age/condition/culture of “postmodernity” from what is perceived as the past age/condition/culture of “modernity.” Postmodern theory addresses a nexus of specific and interconnected problems and limitations, contradictions and crises, and possibilities and opportunities that emerge within the space of conflict and struggle over the reproduction and transformation of late capitalist culture. “Postmodernisms” are ideological articulations of postmodern theories. The significance of postmodernism is due to the fact that postmodernism has become the principal “radical” ideology of the new petit-bourgeoisie in the advanced capitalist societies of contemporary late capitalism. At the same time, however, postmodernism represents an ultimately very much conservative recuperation and containment of the radical potential of the late capitalist new petit-bourgeoisie. The new petit-bourgeoisie is a class which manages late capitalist institutions and yet which does not own — in the sense of exercise ultimately effective control over — these institutions. Postmodernism represents a very conservative mode of “radical” resistance on the part of this class against its alienation from ultimately effective control over what it manages and against the oppressive domination of this management activity by the interests and needs of capital. Postmodernism is an attempt to evade and to escape rather than to confront, to contest, and to overcome this alienation and oppression. It works within the existing system of social arrangements to secure the space for the petit-bourgeois subject to compensate for its relative powerlessness in the face of capitalist domination in the pleasures that can be gained through indulgence in diverse forms of play. This ludic space is, supposedly, secured by proliferating the notion that social reality is a vastly heterogeneous plurality of incommensurable forms which not only preclude totalization but also remain, even in their discretely unique particularity, ultimately unknowable, ultimately indeterminate and undecideable. Such a reading/writing of the social real supposedly enables the petit-bourgeois subject to be able to secure the “free” space for its pleasure and play by rendering unintelligible and thus impossible the kind of stable and systematic knowledge supposedly required for total domination over and suppression of avenues and opportunities for this petit-bourgeois “freedom” (from the vantage point of postmodernism, “total” is understood as identical with totalitarian.).
“Ludic postmodern theory” is, following Donald Morton and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh (who credit Teresa Ebert with the initial, theoretical articulation of this category), the dominant form of postmodern theory. According to Morton and Zavarzadeh, ludic postmodern theory understands postmodernity as
a problematics of ‘representation’ and, furthermore, conceives ‘representation’ as a rhetorical issue, a matter of signification in which the very process of signification articulates the signified. Knowledge of the ‘outside’ — if one can mark such a zone of being — is, according to ludic theory, traversed by rifts, slippages and alterities that are immanent in signifying practices and, above all, in language. Representation, in other words, is always incommensurate with the represented, since it is subject to the law of differance. Ludic (post)modernism, therefore, posits the ‘real’ as an instance of ‘simulation’ and in no sense the ‘origin’ of the ‘truth’ that can provide a ground for a political project. Differance, in ludic (post)modernism, is regarded as the effect of the unending ‘playfulness’ (thus the term ‘ludic’) of the signifier in signifying practices that can no longer acquire representational authority by anchoring itself to what Derrida has called in Of Grammatology the ‘transcendental signified’. (Theory, (Post)Modernity, Opposition, Washington, D.C.: Maissoneuve Press, 1991, 107)
In contrast — and contest — with ludic postmodern theory is what Zavarzadeh and Morton identify as “resistance postmodern theory.” Although I differ from Zavarzadeh and Morton in remaining dubious about — and thus rejecting — the potentially radical effectivity — and even the actually fundamental viability — of resistance and opposition to ludic postmodernism from “within the postmodern.” Instead I prefer the position that (ludic) postmodernism is better resisted and opposed from a vantage point which is “outside” of and in this sense no way complicitous with (ludic) postmodernist propositions and presuppositions. However, Morton and Zavarzadeh do outline the general direction a radical critique of (ludic) postmodernism should follow in their articulation of “resistance postmodernism.” At the very least it is necessary to recognize that resistance postmodern theory is a critical-oppositional postmodern theory which has, by and large, yet to be extensively developed and deployed.
The principal objective of resistance postmodern theory is to contest and critique ludic postmodern theory. For Zavarzadeh and Morton, this contestation and critique is virtually in itself equivalent with resistance postmodern theory. This becomes problematic, however, if contestation and critique remains immanent and does not surpass and supercede the logical foundations — the fundamental propositions and presuppositions — of (ludic) postmodernism. In any event, resistance postmodern theory enacts opposition to ludic postmodern theory by contesting the ludic understanding of differance as “an effect of rhetoric,” arguing that “difference” must instead be articulated, according to Zavarzadeh and Morton, as “the effect of ‘labor’”:
focusing on congealed and alienated labor as private property. Labor, and not language… is the frame of intelligibility that determines the regime of signification and the ensuring ‘representation’ of the real. Language and all other semiotic processes are articulated by the division of labor. In short, difference is a ‘materialist’ praxis produced through class struggle, not a ‘rhetorical’ effect. (106)
Resistance postmodern theory attempts to rearticulate emancipatory practices within the “space of the postmodern” at the same time that it also attempts to rearticulate this space of the postmodern in relation to the objectives of revolutionary (socialist) struggles for emancipation. As Morton and Zavarzadeh further elaborate,
in this rearticulation of the (post)modern, such concepts as ‘totality’, ‘ideology’, and ‘critique’ play a key role because they… enable an understanding of the global logic of exploitation underlying the seemingly heterogeneous practices of late capitalism that ludic (post)modernism posits as the only viable sites of the (micro)political. In its reunderstanding of totality (after it has been deconstructed), resistance (post)modernism activates the ‘other’ of the dominant, (ludic) (post)modernity. (106)
Both contemporary queer theory and contemporary queer practice can be seen as logical extensions of poststructuralist and ludic postmodern claims that all meaning, all knowledge, all identity, and ultimately all of reality are unstable and insecure effects of “the free play” of signification. According to ludic theory, language slips and slides away from and against any and all attempts to control its use and direct it to serve determinate ends. Language creates both the uses to which it is put and those who make use of it towards these ends: both “language-uses” and “language-users” are actually, ultimately nothing more than positions — and, of course, slipperily unstable and insecure positions — within language itself. Subjectivity is a discursive construct. The social and the historical are merely texts, and the “laws” which supposedly govern and regulate history and society are actually, ultimately, only the laws of textuality. These laws of textuality, furthermore, are those which decree the actual, ultimate, irreducible and ineffable indeterminacy, instability, insecurity, free play and flux of all meaning and knowledge, all identity and difference, all of that which is understood as the rational and the real, and all of that which is understood as the cultural and the natural. Following Jacques Derrida, ‘there is nothing outside of the text’ and “the text” resists any and all attempts cognitively to add up what it is in its “totality.”
In fact, queer theory presupposes that poststructuralist and ludic postmodern theory have demonstrated that language is, in all of its operations, actually, ultimately, first and last “queer.” And, as already indicated, if language is actually, ultimately, first and last queer, then all of reality is actually, ultimately, first and last queer as well. It is only because of this presupposition that queer theorists can evince the kind of serene confidence in the pervasively threatening power of “queerness” that they so often do. Michael Warner’s proclamation in “From Queer to Eternity: an Army of Theorists Cannot Fail,” is both typical and instructive in this regard:
Almost everything that would be called queer theory is about ways in which texts — either literature or mass culture or language — shape sexuality. Usually, the notion is that fantasy and other kinds of representation are inherently uncontrollable, queer by nature. This focus on messy representation allows queer theory, like nonacademic queer activism, to be both antiassimilationist and antiseparatist: you can’t eliminate queerness, says queer theory, or screen it out. It’s everywhere. There’s no place to hide, hetero scum! (Village Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992, p. 19)
Queer Theory is potentially one of the most far-reaching of the anti-rational tendencies within contemporary Cultural Studies. Queer Theory contends that the sensual and the erotic represent the most radically resistant, disruptive, and subversive forces at work in the advanced capitalist societies of fin- de-siecle late capitalism. Queer Theory thus advocates a “radical” politics which makes sensual and erotic pleasure, performance, and play its principal weapons in conflict and struggle with “straight” “oppression” and “repression.” Queer Theory provides the theoretical articulation of and ideological justification for a “Queer Practice” which strives to “deconstruct” the straight by revealing how queer the straight ultimately is, how much the straight depends upon not recognizing its own queerness in order to remain straight; the goal becomes to “queer the straight” by showing the straight — always and already — to be just another kind of “strange, odd, peculiar, and eccentric” condition, and yet one which fails to face up to this — in large part, because the necessary precondition for any pretension to “straightness” is the development and dissemination of the “convenient myth” that sexualities are discrete and distinct, clearly divided — and clearly divisible — between dominant and subordinant, “majority” and “minority” (and between “normal” and “abnormal” and “natural” and “unnatural”). “Queering the straight” means showing that straight standards of what constitutes these divisions are arbitrary, and thus themselves “queer.” These standards are designed to protect the straight from its own queerness and yet cannot ultimately succeed in doing this, because the queer always remains proximate within the straight — as a kind of “absent presence” akin, according to Jonathan Dollimore, to the “privative” absent presence of evil in the Augustinian conception of the perverse. Queer theory thus advocates a radical politics which makes sensual and erotic pleasure, performance, and play its principal weapons in conflict and struggle with “straight” “oppression” and “repression.” Queer theory provides the theoretical articulation of and justification for a queer politics which strives to deconstruct the straight by revealing how queer the straight ultimately is, how much the straight depends upon not recognizing its own queerness in order to remain straight.
Queer Practice advocates exposing this situation for what it is, making visible the dependence of the straight upon the queer — both the queer “inside” which the straight fears to accept and yet cannot ever entirely evade or escape, and the queer “outside” which defines the ultimate horizon of the conceivably possible within the realm of social-sexual identity. As a result, the difference between “living queer” and “living straight” becomes something akin to the difference between authentic versus inauthentic forms of existence: the “authentic” queer does not live in “bad faith,” but instead accepts the fact that she is queer and cannot help but be queer, and therefore deliberately, defiantly, and exuberantly revels in being just as queer as she possibly can be. The straight is the “false queer” who “inauthentically” lives in “bad faith,” pretending that it is possible to maintain and to conform to stable (unquestionable and incontestable, unalterable and inevitable) standards of “normal” and “natural” social-sexual identity and behavior.
Queer Theory proposes to replace both a marxist “theoretics” (which argues for social transformation based upon a conceptual knowledge of social totality) and a foucauldian “analytics” (which argues for an understanding of social “localities” in terms of a chain of discursive formations) with an “erotics” — a (post)conceptual, (post)discursive “understanding” of (queer) sexuality (or sexualities) as the “sublime” dimension (“sublime” in the Kantian sense) of contemporary social reality. Queer Theory is a new paradigm within Cultural Studies, a paradigm which claims that current models of understanding socially constructed identities and differences are inadequate because they are, in one way or another, ultimately too conceptual or analytical and are thus unable adequately to account for the sexual which, although inevitably textually mediated, always escapes and exceeds — and even overpowers and undoes — the prescriptive and proscriptive limits of this textual mediation.
Queer Theory is a distinctively new mode of irrationalism, even if its “newness” is in large part a newness of pastiche and bricolage, and even if this “new” returns very quickly to support a rather “old” kind of highly pragmatic and conventionally liberal pluralist politics. Queer Theory critically appropriates and transforms “past,” and especially recent past irrationalist discourses — in particular discourses from radical feminism, liberal pragmatism, existentialism, deconstruction, and new historicism — in order to mark out a new direction and a new agenda for radical politics in the 1990s. This new “queer politics” maintains close ties with the broad post-marxist movement to replace the struggle for socialism with struggle for what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Stanley Aronowitz, and many others today describe as “radical democracy” (or, alternatively, what Jeffrey Weeks has designated as a telos of “radical pluralism”). Yet Queer Theory is also distinct; queer theory is, in fact, that section of the broad post-marxist and post-socialist movement for radical democracy which focuses most intensely upon the necessity of supersession of the analytical/conceptual — and in line with this, the “rational” as well — in order to enable not only the success but also the viability and legitimacy of any successful new 21st century politics of liberation in the advanced capitalist nations of North America and Western Europe. Queer Theory advances a kind of postmodern anarchism which is akin not only to the kind of “kynical” critique of postmodern cynicism advocated by Peter Sloterdjik in Critique of Cynical Reason (1983, Translated and Republished in English by the University of Minnesota Press in 1987), but also to the kind of “pun(k)deconstruction” advocated by Geoffrey Ulmer (in texts such as Teletheory, London: Routledge, 1989). Like both the “kynical” and “the pun(k)-deconstructive,” this “anarchist” “radicality” does not prevent but rather enables Queer Theory’s complicity with the formation of a broad, “new consensus” among a new, “post-liberal” left: a “new consensus” which promulgates and celebrates a “multiculturalist” diversity and heterogeneity within the pragmatic and realist bounds required for the beginning of movement beyond the negative legitimation of and negative identification with the late capitalist social and cultural status quo that dominated the “cynical” 70s and 80s towards the inauguration of a new positive legitimation of and positive identification with the late capitalist social and cultural status quo in a techno-communitarian “new commonwealth.”
Queer Theory’s valorization of a politics rooted in pleasure can make only a very limited contribution to gay and lesbian sexual and social emancipation. The problem is not that there is anything wrong with the pursuit of pleasure, and, in fact, it is certainly true that one of the goals of any kind of radical emancipatory politics must be to work towards the creation of the conditions which will make possible both a quantitative increase in the extent and degree and a qualitative advance in the kind and the power of those pleasures, certainly including sensual and erotic pleasures, that future society will make available — and equitably to all. Yet neither the performative display nor the indulgent pursuit of sensual and erotic pleasures conventionally ascribed as abnormal, unnatural, bizarre, strange, unusual, extreme, and perverse is likely to do very much, in and of itself, to change the highly restricted and extremely unequal access to and exercise of means of pleasure that continues to prevail within fin-de-siecle late capitalism — nor is it likely to change at all the still very powerful and pervasive denigration of homoerotic and homosexual pleasure(s) (as abnormal, unnatural, bizarre, strange, unusual, extreme, and perverse).
Queer Theory proposes that queers can force straights to leave queers alone, to let queers live as they want and choose, because the straight world will find that it is less dangerous to itself to do so: otherwise the queer world will use its insidiously perverse power to “queer the straight,” by revealing the queer everywhere — always already — supposedly concealed within and as such fundamental — in repressed and sublimated form — to the (illusion of an) effectively stable functioning and secure self-reproduction of this straight world. The straight world thus supposedly both always and everywhere needs and fears the queer at the same time that its apparent dominance over the queer can be shown as illusory; the very vexedness and defensiveness of this dominance supposedly reveals the extent to which the ultimate real power actually belongs to the queer: the straight supposedly only secures its illusory pretense of dominance over the queer because the queer chooses to consent to what is actually only a “masquerade” of domination and subordination. Unfortunately, “queering the straight” can only be the result of long, hard, difficult work to make this happen as it has not at all yet been achieved: the straight is at present in no way significantly "queer” or “queered,” and certainly is not always already in any significant way “queer."
An aggressively “offensive defense” is of course very useful and indeed necessary to gay and lesbian survival at a time in which it is not immediately possible to achieve substantial progress through general social transformation, and yet its limits need to be recognized for what they are: queer praxis poses little, at least immediate, threat to the interests which benefit from — and, in fact, require and depend upon — the oppressive marginalization of homosexuality and of gay and lesbian community and culture. In fact, queer strategy makes it possible for a “kinder and gentler” yet still very much oppressive marginalization of gays and lesbians to be maintained and even extended at the same time as the most overtly hateful, viscerally violent, and immediately genocidal kinds of assaults upon gays and lesbians are forestalled: queer praxis tends to promote queer praxis as a kind of “concentrated campishness” which verges upon accepting confinement within a kind of “concentration camp” where queers perform for — perform their subordination and submission to — the straight world.
Unfortunately, queer praxis is at present ultimately very much a self- defensive/self- protective form of “radicalism.” Particularly unfortunate is that this includes defense and protection of queers from having to confront the much harsher reality that “the straight world” maintains little substantial real need for or fear of “the queer world,” and to the extent that it does need queers it needs queers who are superexploited and superoppressed for their deviation and departure from patriarchal sexist gender norms and expectations, and to the extent it fears queers it fears queers who threaten to become the potential vanguard of a revolutionary transformation and supersession of this very same patriarchal sexist sex-gender system.
Queer theory and practice is actually far more continuous with the history of gay and lesbian struggle for liberation than often recognized or claimed — and especially in the extent to which queer theory and practice is understood to be about performing (now defiantly as well as camply) "queerness” as exotic and bizarre, that which supposedly affirms, strengthens, and protects gays and lesbians by shocking and even titillating “the straight world.” In this sense, queerness is a defensive posture guised in what at times amounts to little more than a thin cloak of bravado, where the main point is — and this is quite continuous with the entire history of gay liberation since Stonewall — little more than to assert that: “we are here, we are queer, get used to it; we like ourselves and what we are about (we are fabulous); and we are not going simply to do what you want us to do, especially be quiet and go away.” This is only a minimum necessary first step in a truly radical queer praxis, as the key will be what queers do next when it becomes clear that late capitalist patriarchal sexist and heterosexist society will not bend to treat queers as in any way truly fabulous, and even if it does have to allow queers — occasionally — to be loudly seen and heard, will nevertheless work very strenuously to marginalize queers so that queer “noise” will seem simply silly, even amusing, and, ultimately, largely trivial and inconsequential.
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Next, Part III: The Future