Queer theory Paert 2
g.maclennan at qut.edu.au
Fri Apr 26 00:36:54 MDT 1996
My first post received what on the whole were thoughtful replies from
Chatterjee and Matt D. I will reply to these asap. I will try to finish
this paper today (failed sorry!). I then will tackle the question of the
progressive nature of the Bolshevik Republic 1917-34, I will also try and
compose something on the Necessity of Homophobia.
1. Gay Identity politics contd.
Australia's first Television ad for a gay cause was the Outrage
advertisement. Outrage is the glossy gay magazine out of Melbourne. It was
started in the 70s by radicals and Maoists but now it is very mainstream,
though its politics tend to be sort of Laborist. The ad featured a cute
young 20 something male. Lying in his bedroom in a luxury flat decorated
with the ultra modern in terms of obets d'art and objets trouves. Suddenly
a ring on the door alerts him to the memory that he has forgotten a visit
>from his parents. He dashes round the flat trying to hide the tell tale
signs of his gayness. But all ends well. His mother discovers a copy of
Outrage and likes it and his father, though a teeny bit grumpy also likes it
and they both display acceptance of their son.
A simple tale but beneath it there is a wealth to learn about gays and being
gay. It is worth considering to begin with that within contemporary
capitalism to have an advertisement made by and for one is to truly signal
one's existence in the market sense i.e. according to capitalism the "only
The ad itself is built around fairly standard gay motifs. The cute young
model reminds us that the gay culture is extraordinarily ageist, not like
the heterosexual culture. The apartment is full also of the cultural and
symbolic capital of the gay yuppies: flowers, prints. This is the
modernist western gay lifestyle and the fact that this ad is built around it
is some kind of proof of its popularity or prestige value.
The more interesting part of the ad is however the narrative constructed
around the family. It is significant that it is the mother who signals
first that the son can be accepted. But it is easy to forget watching this
ad that the crucial acceptance is not from the mother but from the father.
There are many instances of gay men being very close to the mothers, but the
crucial *forgiveness* for being gay is to be sought from the father. the
latter's responsibility being to induct the son into the Phallic order.
There is guilt and rejection on both sides that has to be overcome.
However within the utopia of the ad the great source of pleasure is that the
closet door has been spring open and disaster has not struck. The commodity
form of course -the magazine Outrage- is the catlyst for this happy outcome.
The great prize to be won here is -recognition and acceptance by one's
parents in this instance and by extension society at large.
2. The Queer agenda
What then is queer? and queer theory. What I have been asked is the
difference between queers and gays. well the clearest marker is age. Gays
are generally 40+. Queers are the young. There are other differences but
the generation gap does define us into queers or gays.
There are two moments in queer and those are the activist and the
theoretical moments. The former is best illustrated by the activities of
Queer Nation established in New York in 1990and Act Up founded by Larry
Kramer. Queer nation is a gay vigilante group which confronts anti-gay
prejudice and oppression in the USA with fearless elan. Here one can only
echo what Isaac Julien says about their praxis - "yeah!". (Julien: 1992:35)
I should say here that I feel one can only understand the aggession of Queer
nation and Act Up in terms of the criminal neglect of public health by
Ronald Reagan and the other dim wit that followed him.
It is for me however the theoretical aspects of queer which I find
problematic. There are three aspects that I wish to discuss here, firstly
the question of sexual epistemology and the role it shouold play in an
emancipatory theoretical practice, the term queer versus gay and homosexual
and the wider question of the relationship between the politics of sexuality
and radical politics generally.
3. Pass me the essence, please.
In his review of "How do I look?" Mckee (1993:88-93) quotes Stuart Marshall
to the effect that some concept of identity is necessary for a political
practice. He also refers to Spivak's endorsement of an "operational
essentialism" and "a false ontology of women as a universal in order to
advance a feminist political program." (ibid) Similarly Weeks, while denying
that identities are "expressions of secret essences." admists that they
"seem necessary in the contemporary world as starting points for a politics
around sexuality." (1985:209)
Fuss too endorses Spivak's call for what she terms a "provisional
essentialism" though she worries about it becoming permanent and stresses
that what she is supportin is an essentialism that is controlled by the
"dispossessed" or an essentialism from below. (Fuss, 1989: 32)
At work in these arguments are tensions within contemporary theory, that are
related to the relationships of the real (the ontological) to our
descriptions of it (the epistemological) and of theory to political practice.
Surely it is a supreme irony that poststructuralismst theory has led us to
abandond notions of universals, human nature and natural rights yet our
political practice requires us to operate with something like just such
notions. Are we dealing here with a case which illustrates E. P. Thompson's
dictum that "theory is a good servant but a bad master'?
The theoretical aspects of queer are more intractable however. They centre
around the notion of the social construction of reality and sexuality as a
performance. The key to grasping post structuralism is IMHO to see it as a
return to Nietzsche especially the Nietzsche of "Gay Science" (no pun
intended). There N. talks of "Physics as "an interpretaion and arrangement
of the world... and not an explanation of the world."(Nietzsche,
When appled to gay theory we find Halperin and others proclaiming that the
homosexual is new and dates only from the 19th century. Foucault has even
suggested an exact date. This is Westphals' article in 1870 on "contrary
sexual sensations". (foucault, 1990: 43) Before the date according to queer
theorists there were homosexual acts but no homosexuals.
A political problem with dating the start of homosexuality to the mid
nineteenth century is that it negates one of the central emancipatory
strategies of the gay movement, that is the "outing of the Great Gays of
History". This game of announcing who did what whith whom in the past has
long been a favourite part of the gay armoury. After all if Alexander the
Great was gay then gays can hardly be called a load of whimps and so on.
My sympathies here are with those who want to use this strategy but I feel
that the queer theorists are correct when they argue that it is the worst
kind of present-ism. Describing Alexander as gay is reading a modern
phenomenon into the past.. Homosexual yea, but gay is modernist as I hope
to show in my coming post on homophobia.
4. Queer or gay?
Apologists for the use of the term "queer", such as Simon Watney, have
argued that queer is convenient beause it is gender and race neutral.
Watney himself claims that queer "asserts an identity that celebrates
difference with a wider pictur o sexual and social diversity. (Watney,
1992:20) Moreover Watney opts for queer because for him it represents a
challenge to "the overall validity of the epistemology of sexuality itself."
Here Queer Theory is attempting nothing less that a break with the dominant
paradigm where everyone has the binary identity of homo/heterosexual,
normal/deviant or straight/gay. This schema, Eve Sedgwick argues is a new
and dates from the start of this century. (1993:245)
Nevertheless despite the theoretical intentions behind queer politics as
Nancy Fraser has pointed out, there is a paradox here in that queers have to
rally people to the identity "queer" before they can overthrow all identies.
Queer then is the non-identity identity. The politically essential non-essence.
When we come up against the contradictions of queer theory I am tempted to
wonder if we are dealing with the Romantic impulse which fights all concepts
because they seek to know and confine. Is this the rage against the prison
house of language? are we in the presence of the anti-scientific desire for
primordial chaos, for scenes where man has never trod? Can we avoid an
identity however vague and broadly defined? I think not myself. But this
are truly complex questions.
Enough for now. I will conclude this paper tomorrow.
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