Daring queerwards

La puissance ou la jouissance?

This quotation, from an Inside Higher Ed article on the proposed renaming of the C.L.R. James Library in Dalston (petition here), sparked off a train of thought for me:

“I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies. There are studies in which black people and black history, so long neglected, can now get some of the attention they deserve. … I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political setting, and, particularly, during the past two hundred years. It’s impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”

It resonated with my recent frustration with queer theory, which, despite some notable exceptions, has seemed largely sterile for some time. It’s James’ apt use of ‘theoretical’ in that last sentence that struck me, particularly the seeming implication that among the criteria for a genuine or politically durable theory must be a kind of universalisability or approach toward totality: given queer theory’s avowed interest in the marginal, veiled or imperfectly rendered aspects of human identity, there are obvious problems with applying that criterion. (Nor is queer theory’s value determined by Marxist approbation.) But James’ comment does disclose what I read as an instinct towards universalisation — i.e., a conviction that theory becomes theory when it ceases to be an analysis of a particular text, or an allegory of a particular portion of history, and discloses previously unnoticed sympathies between disparate moments, or hidden kinships, or previously obscure determinants.

So far, so obvious, and much of the best work that gets called queer theory undertakes just such deft analysis. Nevertheless, there’s also much work (perhaps most of it) that imports a weighty, reified theoretical framework and applies it to some particular text, producing standard ‘queer’ readings wherein particular instances of unstable gender, suppressed homoeroticism, polyvalent language, and resistant, undeterminable identities are ennumerated. This is not, I think, necessarily a bad thing: conservative literary critics will swig sherry and call it sloppy frippery and fashionable meaninglessness that avoids more complex literary questions in order to construct a parallel perverts’ canon. Given that we have so long had our claims to a place within history suppressed, the daring claim that we are everywhere and in everything does not seem inadvisable; in fact, I strongly believe that the construction of a personal queer genealogy (literary, musical, historical, political) is something deeply productive for individual queers. It certainly was for me.

But there are stronger criticisms, which queers like me level at the queer theory machine. The first is that it’s so frequently narrow and redundant: I often get the impression when reading avowedly ‘queer’ papers that the history of queer theory is divided into two distinct epochs, the first, in which the theory was generated, and the second, in which we dutifully apply it. It is precisely the provisionality of theory that interests me, its simultaneous daring in asking broad, interdisciplinary questions about desire and identity, and its insistence on encountering those identities in discrete historical, personal or textual forms. The intellectual deftness and honesty needed to be able to shift between those perspectives is lost when we insist on using theory as a mold and manacle, or indeed when we refuse to retheorise in an encounter with a genuinely queer moment. (Much of this is due to the gradual transformation of the university into a factory in which the content of research matters less than its quantity, promptness and convenience.)

The second criticism is that the political status claimed by queers in the academy for their work is rather precarious: radicalism is often staked on the potentials (personal and political) opened up by the work of theory, and their gradual transmission to the wider queer movement by some kind of intellectual trickle-down effect. Jonathan Dollimore, in the opening essays in Sex, Literature & Censorship, has already pointed out that many of the ‘radical’ claims made by queer theory are, despite being predicated on their status as provocative or challenging, in fact rarely as shocking or marginal as they are made out to be. To add to that, there are two additional political problems that are generated by those claims: the first is a kind of vanguardism which positions the complexities of queer theory as generated in the crucible of academia and broadening out in cruder forms to the community as a whole, as such it presupposes that the ability to think clearly about queer identity, sexuality and desire is limited to the hieratic caste of intellectuals and must be acquired second-hand. In fact, radical and complex theories of identity play out in the broader queer community all the time, frequently refusing the argument that the act of theorising is inaccessible to all but the most privileged and educated. The second is that such vanguardism also often prevents the kind of dialogue between, e.g., theorists and queer activists, or artists, especially those who operate outside of the constellation of forums, galleries, screenings and book launches that constitutes the academical-cultural complex.

Third, there is still a certain impoverished sense of what queer theory can do or can be; that labouring under the considerable weight of Oscar Wilde’s corpse we cease to see the broader world. The initial claim that the queer movement makes is that the personal is the political, but its danger is the collapse of the political into the simply personal (and, especially, the solipsistic.) This plays out particularly in the occasional positioning of the aesthetic as the final totality into which all other aspects of queer identity collapse, i.e. the great, negating maw into which all possible politics, all possible ethics are devoured, negated, ironised and demolished; but it’s also more clearly visible when we make the ‘queer’ question one of assimilation or separatism, of the status of marriage or the ability to serve in the military and the like. It’s not that such questions are negligible, but that they frame queerness as a simply a matter of options open to an individual, and the theory behind them is bound to demonstrate the previously hidden position of the queer in history, heading on an ineluctable trajectory towards emergence as a fully-endowed member of society.

It’s a truism as old as the Owl of Minerva that we come to understand our condition at the moment it passes from vitality, and it’s perhaps for that reason that so much of queer discourse is oriented to the historical. But there is a shying from adventurous thinking that interests me, a movement from the question of desire and the broad, complex questions it can generate, and instead towards historical excavation, re-orientation and justification, and that movement is interesting. The fact is that the thought of someone like Guy Hocquenghem – to my mind still the most fertile of queer theorists – has given way to a split sphere in which theory is divorced from practice; where one has become historically-oriented, and the other emptied of any politics other than minor liberal reform.

I do, in fact, believe that whatever we group under the name ‘queer’ has some political and intellectual potential: as a mode of theorising that remains supple, but especially in forming a politics which is anticipatory and prefigurative – utopian, in fact. To do so means spreading out in a number of ways: projection rather than the melancholic retrospective. The conjunction of theory with the utopian politics of radical queer communities can produce something fascinating, and construct itself along lines that, for instance, choose Orton over Wilde, Scott Treleaven over Gilbert and George, which uses questions of identity and desire not for pat self-assurance, but to ask deep and searching questions about property, capital, ‘nature’, knowledge, community – and what those things could be, if we dared.

Contra Papam

On Saturday, despite a fucked ankle, I was intent on going to the march to protest the pope in London. I’d come up the night before, with the intention of making banners, but anarchists being anarchists, someone forgot the card, another the paint, and we were left with some bamboo canes and no open craft shops; let it never be said that I heed omens correctly. The argument I had with a bearded, cheese-making 9/11 conspiracy theorist while getting coffee in the morning really could serve as a metonym for the whole day.

I went into the march with low expectations. That’s because the major marches I’ve previously been a part of, including the 2003 million-person London anti-war march, have largely been ineffectual, largely because they’re built on broad bases which crack at the slightest hint of dissent (see the trajectory of the Stop the War Coalition.) This particular march was born out of a coalition of odd bedfellows: atheists, human rights campaigners, women’s ordination groups, mad evangelicals, gay priests, fiscal conservatives and so on. In order for such a large action to take place, every trace of a demand per se has to be eliminated, or at least kept so vague that everyone can agree to it.

Of course, this means that there are further problems: much of the discussion about the Papal visit has been around the personal habits and peccadilloes of Benedict XVI himself, from his delicate love of red loafers and handsome personal secretaries to his personal role in covering or relocating the sex abuse scandal. At times, this can be well-targeted: any conversation about the current Pope should remember his personal vindictiveness in the crushing of liberation theology, but shouldn’t forget, either, that such directives also came from his predecessor in the throne of St Peter. But in granting the ground of the argument to the personal culpability of the Pope himself, we reframe the argument so to concern, essentially, the personal grace of a single man. In this conception, which is increasingly popular, politics ceases to be a question of actions and responsibilities and instead becomes about the personal moral standing of the individual. (Hence the odd Papal defence: he is nice, compassionate, gentle, plays Mozart and the like.) In fact there should be far greater and more complex questions about the institutional politics of the Church itself (e.g., the Banco Vaticano, the systematic culture of deference, total autocracy, obedience, anti-democracy) as well as rage over child abuse, the treatment of homosexuals, the treatment of women, the message on HIV infection — partly because these positions do not simply exist in a scriptural vacuum, but extend from a secretive and precipitous political system. In fact, Benedict is right on one thing: the Church is not outside of the political, though not, perhaps in the way that he would want it. It is not that the Church is somehow a bulwark of unchanging truth to which we should have recourse, but rather an institution as extensively festering, corruptible and loathsome as any government or party. It must be called to account.

Hence protesters marching and wringing their hands about not wanting to offend anyone (one protester actually went to the police to have an ‘offensive’ banner removed), or refusing to condemn an institution, or, worse, mocking ‘men in dresses’, or whinging about a Papal visit being perfectly acceptable, save that we now live in the age of austerity and jolly well shouldn’t be paying for such extravagances. Is this really the basis of our protest? There’s a sort of fanatic sense of superiority that percolated through the march, of a particular kind of ‘enlightenment’ that I found tedious: a reverential, almost ecstatic quiver at the thought of Richard Dawkins. For all that Dawkins’ line on religion can be seductive, it is all too easy to forget that he, alongside many other sociobiologists, was conscripted into and complicit with the rise of Thatcherism, the virtues of the ‘selfish’ and the promotion of an aggressively ‘free’ market; not all atheist political positions are necessarily progressive.

Yet, also, there was something curiously evacuated about the march, perhaps because it had no content. The slogans on the banners were polite, not punchy. The many paper mitres in evidence floated free of any signification other than, well, what a silly hat he wears. The chants were confused or unenthusiastic; the guidelines for the protest had instructed no disruption, no confrontation, no aggression. The only thing chanted with any enthusiasm was ‘Pope Go Home!’ Well, yes. Save that, of course, the Pope was already going home the next day. We already knew that. I don’t think the problems for which he is merely the most clear figurehead are going to disappear when he flies into the sunset.

It’s a good thing to listen to the chants that get passed and volleyed and picked up in a crowd — they’re good indicators of what’s going on. In this protest, the only one picked up with any enthusiasm was ‘Pope Go Home!’ — i.e., get out of my sight, be here no longer, out of our country. Don’t forget there’s a long history of seeing Catholics as a fifth column in this country, and though overstated by reactionary Catholics, it was unquestionably there. But more than that, the point is that what the Pope represents won’t disappear simply because he’s no longer physically present, partly because institutional corruption and unquestioning deference permeates to every level, and partly because the blurring of the distinction between the logic of grace or salvation and the political logic of the state isn’t dependent on a single person. But rather than address this, the unbearably smug crowd work themselves into a fever [orgy, orgia -- a 'sacred rite'] over the crystal perfection of their own rationality, allying it to every muddled conception of ‘this scepter’d isle’ as somehow an outpost of the finest distillation of the enlightenment.


I’m glad there was a protest. But in reality it felt both strangely evacuated and directed toward a muddled end. In the past couple of days, I’ve had people send me links to Dawkins’ speech at the rally. Neither impressive rhetorically nor complex philosophically, it was precisely the kind of catharsis that these marches tend to end in, and that I tend to find a little hollow. Yet this is partly the nature of marches and partly the nature of the cause. The absurd conspiracist cheese-farmer in Borough market forces the question: do we only encounter these strange kind of passions in defence of a delusion about ourselves and our preferred mode of government? In defending 9/11 conspiracies one has to project the notion of a vast, hugely capable, hugely secretive, hugely efficient government body that works vast and total deceptions of which no primary evidence has ever reached daylight; not only does this then mean that they are one of a small band of the enlightened, but that government competency is wide and far-reaching, with a long plan in sight. Far from finding this terrifying, many find comfort in the supposed impenetrability of government and therefore the impossibility of real or profound social change. Thus one can rail against conspiracy while absolving oneself of complicity — it is far more terrifying, far more of a call to action, to realise that government is both precarious and incompetent, that what are made to look like strategic decisions are frequently made up on the spot, that government largely flounders in the face of complexity.

Much of the anti-papal march took on a similar tone – of the band of the enlightened, of the impossibility of dealing with the vast mass of the deluded and of the absolute solidity of the Church. None of those things are givens, but it would be a far harder call to action to realise that a better world is possible, since one then has to work for it. (And we might ask why they seem counterintuitive.) The march largely involved a logic of catharsis and disclamation, as marches tend to. Thus the cathartic whooping for Dawkins, but equally thus the personal disclaiming of the state visit. The same logic was operative in the 2003 march: ‘not in my name.’ But this is again a logic of purely personal culpability when social and collective questions are actually at play: the 2003 march and this one were both salves for guilty consciences, designed less to create change than to register a formal objection while retaining the status quo.

Many anarchists refused to go on this march. It’s worth asking why. It’s partly, I think, a refusal of the conditional logic behind marches, the logic of formal objection: i.e., in order to object to a state visit, one has to first accept the value and legitimacy of the state itself. In marching under a form of regulated, civilised (i.e., ineffectual) protest, all one does is argue for a minimal reform in an inherently corrupted mode of government. That is not valueless, but it’s also compromised. Instead, we might argue, direct action as opposed to civil protest is an action that undertakes to immediately alter material circumstances by simply acting as if the state is illegitimate; it can and does, as such, point to some powerful conclusions. What would a direct action at the papal visit have looked like? Well, it could have involved street theatre, peaceful action designed to provoke thought in the onlookers instead of registering ‘oh, another protest.’ It could have been setting up a spokescouncil in Hyde Park to determine how to react to the Papal visit. It could certainly have been ignoring the logic of an unequal society and refusing the respect accorded to spurious authority and simply obstructing his progress, or issuing a demand to him. It could have been many things beside. But none of those things would involve the same kind of approach as a march, which is all about visibility rather than action – and often of the worst kind, of a kind of visibility in order to obtain a kind of self-contained satisfaction which goes nowhere, changes nothing, generates no new world.


For who can abide a scurvy peddling poet to pluck a man by the sleeve at every third step in Paul’s Churchyard, & when he comes in to survey his wares, there’s nothing but purgations and vomits wrapped up in waste-paper?

– Thomas Nashe, ‘Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil’ (1592)

Probably no better way of setting the tone. Hello!