Tuesday, February 27, 2007

3 questions for our captive guest blogger

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your recent, very polished posts. I'm wondering now if you would embrace the spirit of blogging and offer us something more extemporaneous? I, for one, would like to hear your reflections on the following:

(1) It seems clear to me from your writing here and elsewhere (esp. your very nice piece "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies") that you see queer theory's best ally -- and best promise for a lively future -- in Jacques Derrida. Would you take a moment, though, and reflect upon the possible limitations of a deconstructive mode upon what you have called in the past the Future*Queer? Does queer theory have other promising allies besides Derrida and Deleuze? How about outside continental philosophy?

(2) When I introduced you on the blog, I mentioned the international perspective that you bring to queer theory. Though much "early" queer theory came from the UK (esp. in Early Modern studies), it seems like its energy then moved across to the United States and settled in contemporary theory and medieval studies. Am I wrong about this? It's interesting, for example, that the two medievalists whom you note gave plenaries at the Queer Matters conference are American (though the organizer you mention, Robert Mills, is not; I am a big fan of his work, by the way). Many of the medievalists doing queer theory you cite in your posts are likewise American (Glenn Burger is one of the exceptions). Is the geography of the academy in any way significant when thinking about the current state of queer theory, especially perhaps when it comes to getting jobs and publishing books? Have you and Noreen Giffney, with the breathtaking energy you've put into queer theorizing in Ireland, brought about institutional change or have you found yourselves fighting against academic currents?

(3) I am guessing that you would describe queer theory now as remaining as vivacious and as full of promise as it was when medievalists were first exploring its possibilities in the 1990s. Is that true, or do you subscribe to the view often heard on the conference circuit that queer theory has lost its former energy and is becoming a specialist's sub-discipline or small and exclusive club?

(4) And a final, easy question. At Leeds in 2005, at one of the post-panel pubfests, you and I talked about what we found appealing about queer theory, especially in its challenges to dominant notions of identity. I offered that queer theory yields a useful vocabulary and a catalytic mode of thinking for considering identity's contradictions, vagrancies, and (in)exclusions. You said that you also found appealing its transfigurative effect upon identities of all kinds. Would you like to say more?

You will notice that I actually posed four questions. That's me: I can't count.

4 comments:

Michael O'Rourke said...

Hi Jeffrey,

These are great, tough questions. And i'll do my best to extemporize.

(1) It seems clear to me from your writing here and elsewhere (esp. your very nice piece "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies") that you see queer theory's best ally -- and best promise for a lively future -- in Jacques Derrida. Would you take a moment, though, and reflect upon the possible limitations of a deconstructive mode upon what you have called in the past the Future*Queer? Does queer theory have other promising allies besides Derrida and Deleuze? How about outside continental philosophy?

There may be some limitations to the deconstructive mode or, more precisely, there may be some limitations to *my* understanding of the deconstructive underpinnings of queer theorizing. After all, what Butler did in Gender Trouble was to destabilize sex and gender (people often forget she deconstructed "sex" too--if she called her 2004 book Undoing Sex and Gender they might have noticed) using the tools of Derridean deconstruction, and what Sedgwick did in Epistemology of the closet was to unsettle a number of binaries which sustain hetero-logic in Western cultural contexts. Edelman in Homographesis is engaged in a similar project but with a more obvious emphasis on the speech/writing binary which energized the "early" Derrida. So, two points arise out of that which auto-deconstruct my theory (although in relatively insignificant ways). Firstly, if queer theory has always been deconstructive then why bother to reactivate that deconstructive impulse in the present? Secondly, why privilege the "later" Derrida rather than the earlier? My quick answer would be that as queer theory has moved on (and Butler, Sedgwick, and Edelman have too) that this deconstructive edge has been somewhat blunted (in fact who has read Butler since Bodies That Matter, really?) and we need to be constantly reminded of it. If we forget it, queer theory will become nothing more than a synonym for lesbian and gay studies and will lack any abrasive possibilities for critique, will, more worryingly, lack any lively future whatsoever. I would say, too, that we need to return to the "early" Derrida of Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy, and Of Grammatology because much work in queer theory which directly engages Derrida privileges the post-1990 writings (which are seen to foreground ethics and politics more concretely).

Beyond Derrida (and Deleuze) Queer Theory will find allies in all sorts of places if only it has the courage and vision to look for them rather than just finding Foucault and never going anywhere else. There is great sustenance to be found (the following is randomly chosen) in object relations theory (Klein, Winnicot, Laplanche, Pontalis), sociology (Bauman, Giddens, Bourdieu), the Frankfurt School (Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer), queer of color feminism (Anzaldua, Moraga, Lorde), French feminism (especially "recent" Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous--who has read any of these post-1990?), phenemology (Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Heiddeger, Husserl--Sara Ahmed's new book Queer Phenomenology covers some of these bases). Thats just a few examples but here's some names you will rarely find evoked in Queer Studies (and if you do it won't be in any sustained or systematic fashion): Agamben (the exception, The state of exception(!!) in this case are medievalists), Blanchot, Bataille, Ranciere, De Man, Kofman, Nancy, Raymond Williams. Some ot these are of course what we might call "continental philosophers" but my point is that queer theory, like Cultural Studies at its best, promises both intervention and connectivity. In short, it promises a short circuiting (We need more Zizek too).


(2) When I introduced you on the blog, I mentioned the international perspective that you bring to queer theory. Though much "early" queer theory came from the UK (esp. in Early Modern studies), it seems like its energy then moved across to the United States and settled in contemporary theory and medieval studies. Am I wrong about this? It's interesting, for example, that the two medievalists whom you note gave plenaries at the Queer Matters conference are American (though the organizer you mention, Robert Mills, is not; I am a big fan of his work, by the way). Many of the medievalists doing queer theory you cite in your posts are likewise American (Glenn Burger is one of the exceptions). Is the geography of the academy in any way significant when thinking about the current state of queer theory, especially perhaps when it comes to getting jobs and publishing books? Have you and Noreen Giffney, with the breathtaking energy you've put into queer theorizing in Ireland, brought about institutional change or have you found yourselves fighting against academic currents?

There are several possible answers to that question and my "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies" tries to deal with the sedimentation of Queer Theory in/as America. This hegemony is really rather easy to challenge. The word "queer" after all comes from an Indo-European root with connotations of crossing, movement, translation. It is little wonder then that the word quer has taken rather well in German academic contexts--in fact, the first queer theory institute in Europe (set up by antke Engel) will shortly be a year old. It has not translated so readily into other languages but nonetheless there are vibrant queer theoretical "communities" in France, Belgium, Finland and Poland. The latter two countries have peer reviewed queer studies journals, SQS and Inter/Alia and annual conferences. Here in Ireland Noreen and I organize the internationally renowned seminar series The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research. In the UK there are now a number of places where queer academic work "happens", especially King's College London where the medievalist Bob Mills has been instrumental (not just with the huge Queer Matters conference but with the yearly queer@king's program). Also, the theoretical substratum of queer thinking comes from France (Derrida, Deleuze, French feminism) and Germany so the Americanization of the field can seem rather odd from the perspective of those reading and consuming American Queer Theory over here (this is not a two way process however). Several other key figures in medieval queer studies are not American: Emma Campbell, Diane Watt, Simon Gaunt, William Burgwinkle, Anna Klosowska to name only a few. And of course there are medievalists writing in languages other than English who are *not* being read (or translated) by American medievalists.

(3) I am guessing that you would describe queer theory now as remaining as vivacious and as full of promise as it was when medievalists were first exploring its possibilities in the 1990s. Is that true, or do you subscribe to the view often heard on the conference circuit that queer theory has lost its former energy and is becoming a specialist's sub-discipline or small and exclusive club?

Queer Theory has not really lost its energy at all--this is a myth promulgated by the doomsayers of the publishing and academic hiring industries. My own feeling is that unless people are told in the book/essay/article title that they are dealing with queer theory then they can't recognize that work as queer: just one example among many is Butler's work since Bodies That Matter which I already mentioned. I really doubt whether queer theorists have read Precarious Life or Giving an Account of Oneself, precisely because they think "Well, what has that got to do with Queer Theory?" Well, 9/11, Guantanamo Bay, the war on terror, anti-semitism, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and moral philosophy have everything to do with (medieval) queer theory, don't they?

(4) And a final, easy question. At Leeds in 2005, at one of the post-panel pubfests, you and I talked about what we found appealing about queer theory, especially in its challenges to dominant notions of identity. I offered that queer theory yields a useful vocabulary and a catalytic mode of thinking for considering identity's contradictions, vagrancies, and (in)exclusions. You said that you also found appealing its transfigurative effect upon identities of all kinds. Would you like to say more?

Quickly, because I can't put this any better than you, I would say that queer theory's promise is in its radical defamiliarizations, in our not knowing who we are (one reason why it needs to reconnect with Bataille, Nietzsche, Althusser as well as Foucault). The pedagogical and ethical-political potential in this gesture is enormous if only we are prepared to take the risk (imagine if we said we didn't know what we are doing when we do queer theory?).

J J Cohen said...

Thanks, Michael. Those are full and interesting answers.

In relation to (2), I am still wondering if the institutional support for doing queer work is different in the US versus other spaces in which such work is flowering. Then again, I am writing as if the US academy were a heterogeneous entity when it is very far from that. I'm certain it is far easier to do queer-friendly research and publication -- and have it valued -- in a fairly small number of institutions even in the US (it's just that we have so many institutions).

Michael O'Rourke said...

You are right Jeffrey. From my extra-institutional position I would hazard that it is almost impossible to get a job/postdoc/funding as a "queer theorist" in a European university that doesn't have a centre specifically for the study of sexuality. The preface to the current issue of SQS: A Finnish Journal of Queer Studies (in which my "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies" appears) hints at the rather bleak state of academic queer theory in Finland, for example. But, that is not so say that amazing work does not go on in these countries outside the US, just that it is undervalued.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Here's the link to the preface I mentioned; its harrowing stuff: http://www.helsinki.fi/jarj/sqs/sqs_contents2_06.htm