“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.