What I Have to Say about Queer Theory

“What I Have to Say about Queer Theory”
by Caleb Crain
Remarks at the New York Association of Scholars for Reasoned Discourse in a Free Society, 18 September 1998

[In 1998 I gave the talk reproduced below. A couple of years later, friends who edited the literary journal Hermenaut published it on their website, now offline. Here’s how I explained the talk’s 1998 historical context to the Hermenaut editors in 2000:

The New York Association of Scholars is (was?) a chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing group dedicated to rooting out what it saw as post-structuralist nonsense. In 1998 they invited Andrew Sullivan and me to talk to them about queer theory. Apprehensive but curious, I accepted. After all, if they’d invited Andrew and me, they must actually have some genuine interest in the internecine debates of gay intellectuals, right? I wrote this talk, designed to be both a primer (what’s all the fuss about?) and an argument (it’s a wrong turn) about queer theory.

The evening turned out to be an education, in the Henry Adams sense of the word. You know the Gary Larson cartoon where the human is talking to his dog, and then panel two is labeled “What the Dog Hears,” and the man is apparently saying “Woof arf arf Ginger arf arf Ginger arf”? Well, the New York Association of Scholars heard me as saying “Arf arf woof gay arf arf arf queer.” They were appalled that serious discussion of homosexuality occurred in a university setting, at all; the idea that we had talked about it so much and so seriously as to disagree in complicated ways was literally incomprehensible. To be fair, a few members of the group came up afterward and apologized. And Andrew, who has a thicker skin, seemed to enjoy himself and recommended that I try call-in radio shows in Texas sometime.

This talk is very much the product, in other words, of an earlier time. I’ve left in place my incomplete citation notes.]

Good evening. I’ve been asked to explain to you what queer theory is. This will not be easy, because queer theorists do not like to admit to a definition. To make a definition, you have to draw a line, and that might exclude a constituency. Or it might enshrine a particular version of queer theory as standard or normal. Or it could set a limit to what queer theory might someday achieve. Actually, if I were to end my remarks now, I think I would have given you the essence of queer theory. At least, I would not have got anything wrong. For descriptive purposes only, I might add that queer theory concerns gender and sexual orientation. I might also add that, as an academic trend, it seems to have spent its force.

The scholar who usually gets the nod for first using the phrase “queer theory” in print is Teresa de Lauretis, in a 1991 issue of the journal differences. But only three years later, in 1994, de Lauretis had renounced the term for having become “a conceptually vacuous creature of the publishing industry” (Jagose 129). So we cannot hope for de Lauretis to say what queer theory is, although this incident does—inadvertently—give you another clue as to the nature of queer theory: it is suspicious of any message that becomes popular, including its own.

If all this caution about definitions is making you dizzy, then I am being faithful to queer theory’s spirit. Consider this quote from Judith Butler, the Berkeley professor of rhetoric who may be queer theory’s chief thinker: “I have begun with confessions of trepidation and a series of disclaimers, but perhaps it will become clear that disclaiming, which is no simple activity, will be what I have to offer as a form of affirmative resistance to a certain regulatory operation of homophobia” (Butler, L&GR, 308). That’s from her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.”

Disclaiming, certainly, is “no simple activity.” In fact it’s rather opaque. The surprising piece of information in Butler’s sentence is not that she thinks disclaiming is complex, it is that she thinks it is a form of resistance. She thinks disclaiming is a kind of political action that will help homosexuals. Now this is odd. But in order to explain it, I will have to drop my caution, back up, and simply tell you, roughly, what I think queer theory is.

I think queer theory is a utopian ideology. That is, I think it is a confusion of two things: a kind of history and a kind of politics. The germ of it is to be found in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault was an elegant writer, and The History of Sexuality was a clever book that turned many received ideas about sex upside-down. For instance, before Foucault, people used to say that Victorian-era taboos repressed the discussion of sex. But Foucault pointed out that the taboos did exactly the opposite: they made sex seem ever more important, and thus turned the confession of sexual detail into something akin to a religion or a compulsion. At the end of his History’s first volume, Foucault lamented that we had allowed sex to mean too much. Things had gotten so bad, he wrote, that we had even begun to believe that “Sex is worth dying for” (156). Foucault argued against thinking of sex as something natural and purposive. To oppose its grip on our imaginations, he made a suggestion so abstract, it almost sounds as though he meant it as a rhetorical flourish. He wrote, “The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures” (157).

Foucault’s suggestion to break sexuality into pieces had an important precedent. Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality had also demystified sex by attacking it with scissors. On page one of that book, Freud had separated sexual objects from sexual aims, and he went on to divide “normal” sexual behavior into its oral, anal, and genital components. In the case of homosexuals, Freud famously distinguished psychic gender from sexual orientation—in other words, he explained that a man need not be effeminate to love another man. It so happened that in Freud’s day, many people thought of homosexuals as women trapped in men’s bodies. Even homosexual political activists did so, giving themselves the name Uranians. Most eras and nations have had a picture of what a homosexual is that seemed patently true at the time, but which in fact collapsed a number of unruly sexual facts (and people) into a convenient fiction. When Freud separated the image of the Uranian into the pieces that composed it, he was doing a kind of history. Today we would say he was investigating the social construction of homosexuality in the fin-de-siecle German-speaking world. Foucault’s suggestion was to turn Freud’s kind of history into a kind of politics: to make skepticism about identity, and disarticulation of identity’s component parts, into a political tactic.

As history, the impulse to take things apart makes so much sense we usually take it for granted, as the etymology of the word analysis reflects. Bob Dole claimed unproblematically to be a son of the party of Lincoln, and it would have confused no one to be told that a Republican in 1996 was a very different beast from a Republican in 1860. But would any politician dream of running for office on a platform of historical contingency? That, roughly, is what Foucault’s suggestion amounts to. Only an American would take such a French idea seriously. And so it was the burden of Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity to consider “whether feminist politics could do without a ‘subject’ in the category of women” (142).

Butler wanted to take the I out of identity politics. As she put it, “The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must be in place in order for political interests to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed’ ” (142). Butler’s humorless appropriation of Foucault never caught on in mainstream women’s politics. Lesbian and gay academics, however, cottoned to it. Perhaps they were flattered that one of Butler’s few hints as to the shape of post-identity politics pointed to a cultural practice that was traditionally a gay specialty: drag. Or, as Butler dourly renamed it, “the parodic repetition of gender” (146).

Butler did not believe there was any escaping from gender or sexual orientation. The best you could do was highlight how artificial these social constructs were, despite their inevitability. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle’s mock philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdreck had asked the question “Am I a botched mass of tailors’ and cobblers’ shreds, then; or a tightly-articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?” (162). Carlyle found some hope in thinking there was a homogeneous Figure buried under all those clothes. But Judith Butler answers that we’re tailors’ shreds, and that to think otherwise is only to kid ourselves with fairy tales of “agency.”

It may be hard to see how such pessimism could be read as utopian. I’m afraid its appeal can only be understood in light of the closet. Only in the last decade have lesbian and gay professors felt that it was safe to come out and live open lives. But although coming out may be emotionally satisfying, it causes lesbian and gay intellectuals to have two new anxieties. First, there is the fear that once you are known to be homosexual, you will lose your universality. You are no longer a professor of French literature; now you are something more narrow—a professor of gay French literature. Second, more subtly, there is the fear that by coming out you have lost your edge. You have at last joined the middle class. Queer theory relieves both of these anxieties. It is always in rebellion, and it is universal. As Leo Bersani eloquently complained in his book Homos, queer theory is “de-gaying.” It isn’t about lesbians and gays; it’s about everyone confined by ideas about sex—that is, everyone, period. Not parochial and not coopted, queer theory, in the words of Michael Warner, “rejects a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal” (xxvi).

Warner, a professor of American literature at Rutgers, probably did more than anyone else to turn queer theory into a movement. In 1993, he edited an anthology titled Fear of a Queer Planet. In 1995, he and the University of Chicago’s Lauren Berlant wrote a guest column called “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” for the official journal of the Modern Language Association, the PMLA. And in 1997, he and other queer theorists started an activist organization in New York City called Sex Panic. Warner’s chief intellectual contribution to queer theory was a concern about sex in the public sphere, understood in a Habermasian sense. As he and Berlant explained to PMLA readers, they believed queer theory “aspires to create publics, publics that can afford sex and intimacy in sustained, unchastening ways” (344).

Last October in Lingua Franca, I told the story of Warner and Sex Panic, which lobbied against what it took to be a crackdown on public sex in Giuliani’s New York. I won’t say more about it here; if you’re curious, you can find the article on Lingua Franca’s website. For those of you who read the piece, however, I would like to add this footnote. Sex Panic’s members often pointed to an anthology called Policing Public Sex as representative of their ideas. In Lingua Franca, I criticized that collection for containing an essay by former porn star Scott O’Hara that romanticized HIV infection and unsafe sex as acts of radical choice. This past winter, O’Hara died of AIDS, and a message went out to the Sex Panic email list with his last request. A friend of O’Hara’s offered to mail small glassine envelopes containing O’Hara’s ashes to volunteers across the country, because O’Hara had “wished that his ashes be distributed in sex joints, bathhouses, sex clubs, toilets, porno houses, any place where unnatural sex takes place.”

As a writer, O’Hara wrote prose that was admirably free of “disclaiming,” and so it is no surprise that his funereal wish should be so straightforward. But it is worth recalling that queer theory began with Michel Foucault trying to figure out a way to disillusion people from the notion that sex was worth dying for.

In 1995, at what may have been queer theory’s peak, Warner and Berlant called it “something that can barely be said yet to exist” (343). Utopian systems can only promise the world for so long, and then people start to lose patience. I suspect that the only thing queer theory now threatens is lesbian and gay studies. After the demise of queer theory, we still lack queer facts. There are still large gaps in our understanding of lesbian and gay lives, as lived in history and as represented in culture. When this research is undertaken, the skepticism of queer theory will be useful, as will some of the distinctions it made. But most of the work to be done is exactly the sort that queer theory abjured: it is just about us, and it involves identifications.