Study Guide

Queer Theory Critics

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  • Michel Foucault

    We are informed that if repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost: nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an irruption of speech, a reinstating of pleasure within reality, and a whole new economy in the mechanism of power will be required.

    In other words: this is going to be painful. In many ways, the “economy of power” has shifted in favor of the LGBT community; the civil rights of people of all queer stripes are being recognized more and more. But it’s taken a lot of work to get the conversation up and running.

    Foucault focuses on the law, freedom of speech, and codes of sexual morality as three areas where the mechanisms of power have to change. So he’s saying that, along with intellectuals and philosophers and lawyers, there needs to be an active, grass-roots effort that pushes against the old power structures set up by those old enemies, the Victorians.

    As Foucault lays the foundation for queer theory, he stretches it across almost all disciplines of human thought. Any institution in power is a prime target to be dismantled and examined. He wants people to know that queer theory can mess with anybody.

    Even MTV challenged television programming by introducing gay Real World characters. Then Hollywood made movies about the AIDS crisis. And Harvey Milk challenged political organizations.

    Then musicians came out of the closet. Priests came out of the closet. Doctors and professional athletes are coming out of the closet. Some politicians publicly endorse marriage equality.

    Foucault’s insights into just how mechanisms of power control our moral codes have helped so many people and organizations challenge and change those codes. Following Foucault, we’ve begun down the path to a “whole new economy.”

  • Judith Butler

    ... that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.

    Butler suggests that gender is like a hat you can put on or take off. A guy at a football game might put on the sports guy hat and smash a beer can against his forehead to impress his friends. When that same guy meets his girl for dinner the next night, he might put on his best conscientious boyfriend hat.

    Later that night, he might have dreams about sexual experiences with his frat buddies that will freak him out, even if, at core, they’re really just about wanting platonic love and acceptance. So he’ll put a bunch more adamant hats, like the jerk hat, or homophobe hat.

    The point is: we have complicated, multi-dimensional lives that’re full of wildly varying daily experiences. And these different experiences and contexts come with different expectations for our behaviors. So we develop intricate hat collections.

    Butler argues that we can go do what’s expected of us, based on traditional gender roles, or we can choose to perform something different. Us girls can put on jeans instead of miniskirts. Us guys can put on flip-flops and sarongs instead of suits.

    Go wild, friends.

  • Eve Sedgwick

    “Closeted-ness” itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence—not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.

    An assumption underlying the book is that the relations of the closet—the relations of the known and the unknown, the explicit and the inexplicit around homo/heterosexual definition—have the potential to be peculiarly revealing, in fact, about speech acts more generally.

    So much talk about not talking. Here, Sedgwick claims that pretty much all aspects of society are affected by the categorical homo/hetero divide. What we are made to hide about our sexuality, and how we are told to hide it, tells a lot about our positionality in the world. Clearly, rich, straight, white men ain’t got much they need to keep in the closet.

    The rest of us are engaged in a delicate dance of telling without telling too much. Think of it like this: a famous, unmarried musician is asked if he’s gay. He remains silent and his publicist issues a statement that reads, “A man’s private life is his business. Please respect his privacy.”

    As a result, everyone goes crazy, saying, He’s, like, so obviously gay. If you don’t deny something, people assume you are that something.

    And as the questions continue, the “fits and starts,” the different ways to stay silent, build up and the world makes up its own story about what is being hidden. The way the musician stays silent tells you what he hides.

    You see: there is a language of silence. This occurs when one speaks in codes, or tries to suggest something in what one wears, or in how one reacts to questions of identity. And the longer closet doors are shut, the more vivid and outlandish the stories become of what’s inside.

    So the person in the closet uses silence as a performance. People read the performance and make their own interpretations, to which the closeted person fashions another response—yet another silence, with a smile or dark glasses and a security fence.

    The breakthrough here is that in the space between the known and the unknown creates all kinds of new ways of “knowing” things. Before Sedgwick, people weren’t as hip to how people can talk without talking, which is necessary in a culture of oppression. We guess gaydar really is a sixth sense.

  • Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner

    By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations—often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. Contexts that have little visible relation to sex practice, such as life narrative and generational identity, can be heteronormative in this sense, while in other contexts sex between men and women might not be heteronormative. Heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality.

    Questions asked of single people at weddings: Are you married? When are you getting married? Are you dating anyone? Where would you like to get married? What color will the napkins be?

    Questions asked of a married woman at a baby shower: Do you have children? When are you going to have children? How many kids do you want? Will they go to public school or private school? Do you want boys or girls?

    What Berlant and Warner suggest is that the world is structured according to heterosexuality, according to the rules of good coupledom and nice, white picket fence families. There exists a whole set of accepted social behaviors that mark the good couple from the not-so-good couple. Normative behavior is any group of social codes that everyone agrees is proper, well practiced and beneficial to society.

    A home is for a family. A family needs good credit to get a home. A good family saves money for vacations. A good family goes to Disneyland for vacations. Disney characters have family values. Buying products that have family values is good. Etc.

    If you don't have a family, a heteronormative society tells you that you must be depressed, deeply in need of support and encouragement. A heterosexual couple might not be having any sex at all, but they are still heteronormative if they are behaving in the way a "good" family should.

    Heteronormativity starts with the proper, missionary sex between married folk, but it is far more concerned with how you behave outside the bedroom.

    Homonormativity is a kindred term that describes the behavior of normative gay couples as they seek to marry and raise kids and act "just like everyone else." If heteronormativity is privileged over all other social orders, and if it has a variety of damaging consequences, as Berlant and Warner point out, then how do gay couples challenge that order successfully?

    Are white, rich gay couples with kids challenging that order at all? Are gay couples seeking acceptance into a dominant social order that is as restrictive and detrimental as the "old gay ways" of secret sexual encounters, clandestine nightclubs, sham marriages, and hiding in closets?

    Is there a difference in today's society between gay and queer?

    All of these debates rage on, Shmoopers. You go ahead and draw your own conclusions.

  • Lee Edelman

    Pope John Paul II returned to this theme, condemning state-recognized same-sex unions as parodic versions of authentic families, "based on individual egoism" rather than genuine love. Justifying that condemnation, he observed, "Such a 'caricature' has no future and cannot give future to any society". Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order's prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order's coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: F*** the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; f*** Annie; f*** the waif from Les Mis; f*** the poor, innocent kid on the Net; f*** Laws both with capital ls and small; f*** the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.

    It's tough to translate Edelman's passage, as his message seems pretty clear. Though he uses confrontational language, he is addressing a simple issue that no one seems able to discuss: Do we pay so much attention to having children that we neglect the adult problems of our time, like war, poverty, the oppression of minorities, and so much more?

    If you have no Child to protect, educate, dress, promote, satisfy, show off, market, defend, then you have very little, in society's eyes. But could the idea that children are the future have been carefully created by a culture that wishes to perpetuate the current social order?

    If we all quit our jobs to focus more on our kids, or go part-time, or whatever, then there's less energy left to take down The Man. And we all fall in line with heterosexist, sexist, … lifestyles without a peep of dissent.

    For Edelman, the Child has become a golden idol: a cult around which a whole dominant social order spins, from markets to vacations, music, education, defense, immigration, fashion, food, and transportation. So really, the Child is a tool used by government, capitalism, and moral code-makers to control people's lives.

    Whoa, this is heavy stuff. Fighting for the rights of minorities can get ugly. To go after children in this way is risky. It even seems kind of mean spirited.

    But Edelman's strong attack reveals the fact that non-procreative people are almost always either ignored or discriminated against. What about the woman who can't have children and for whom fertility treatments are ineffective? What about religious devotees and community leaders who choose not to have children but are actively engaged in helping others?

    What about a single person who just wants to live with dogs or cats or raise horses? Do their lives have any less inherent value? Why do we place different values on different people's lives/lifestyles in the first place? Inequality is the worst, you guys.

  • Judith Jack Halberstam

    Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failing can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon "trying and trying again." In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards. And what kind of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wonderful anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers.

    All of us measure our lives, in some ways, by what our bodies do. Right after we're born we're called infants. When we start to walk we're called toddlers, then adolescents, then teenagers. That thinking has been based on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual.

    This old nursery rhyme reinforces that progression:

    Jake and Jenny sittin' in a tree
    First comes love,
    Then comes marriage,
    Then comes baby in a baby carriage

    This life order is what Halberstam refers to when she talks about "the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development." If we look at most people's lives, we see that many events are actually "out of order."

    Many of us, homosexuals and heterosexuals, at some point in life, mess up the order of things. Dad's mid-life crisis means he buys that red Camaro he wanted to buy when he was sixteen. Mom takes a karate class at fifty-five because back in her day, girls weren't allowed to.

    Failure to fulfill expected gender norms messes with time. What Halberstam wants us to think about is that every person has her own timetable for development. We all mature in different ways, and at different intervals.

    Stepping outside the expected timeline, the queer person—and this can include anyone, regardless of sexuality—can examine her own life and make life decisions in whatever order seems best.

    The implications of this way of thinking are far-reaching. In Halberstam's view, failure helps us be happy. How? We achieve things when they feel right, not when we feel pressure to make something of ourselves.

    So as queer people fail to be this kind of man or that kind of woman, whole new worlds full of differently satisfying possibilities open up. Then there is only one expectation left: you should be happy with yourself, and with your life.

    That sounds like an okay expectation to us.

  • Jose Muñoz

    Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain.

    "We are not yet queer." Hang on. People are coming out of the closet all over the place these days. So what is Muñoz talking about?

    Here is where the queer identity and the gay identity start to come apart. One can be both gay and queer. And some people are gay, but not queer. Allow us to explain.

    Being queer means never having to say, "I am x." The whole point is to declare: I have no definition. I am indefinable. I am moving towards some future where none of us have to be any categorical thing at all.

    When Muñoz suggests "queerness is an identity," he qualifies it by saying it is a potentiality. Queerness is a "warm illumination" on the horizon. That's a great metaphor to think about. A horizon is off in the distance; it represents hope, a place where things change for the better.

    But as you approach the horizon, another horizon inevitably appears. There is always an over there that is exciting and new and that over there effects how I behave right here. Muñoz tells us that a queer identity is never fully realized or explained or pinned down.

    That's why it's so valuable. In essence: a queer identity is the fluid hope for a better, more fluid future.

    If you don't claim a set identity, then you can always redefine yourself. Your identity is always temporary. That horizon is always ahead of you.

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