Monday, October 04, 2010

Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics

by J J Cohen

I realize that while I've told you plenty about Jewish Berlin, travel through the city, and my own talk, I've not blogged about the conference itself. With 250 registrants and I don't know how many actual attendees, the event was a fantastic success, and the organizers are to be thanked heartily for having done such an excellent job with it.

A few observations:
  • Queer at this conference meant a serious engagement with trans. My impression is that queer theory in the US does not as frequently and as deeply take trans into account. 
  • Sometimes trans meant transgender; sometimes transsex; once trans-species. But it always seemed to do more work without some modification, just trans.
  • Susan Stryker, in fact, spoke about how the queer and the trans might be differentiated. Her formulation: queer (active passivity) is to punk as trans (active receptivity) is to alternative country.
  • Not surprisingly, much of the conference was on contemporary phenomena and recent lived experience. That made my medieval paper the odd one out, and not (I hope) the cranky old guy who tells everyone how it used to be. 
  • But that isn't to say that history didn't figure. Jack Halberstam gave a compelling piece that traced the roots of much queer theory praising relations between men as antisocial to fascism and the cult of masculinism. The most deviant desires, Jack argued, can come with the most normative and conservative, right wing politics: intolerance of foreigners, Jews, and Muslims doesn't mean one can't be expressive of one's homosexuality -- and often leads to the argument that homosexuality exists outside of politics. That sounds inflammatory but the paper wasn't that at all, or wasn't intended to be. Halberstam also never condemned the cited sources (especially Leo Bersani, and to a degree Lee Edelman), instead arguing that the the historical pedigree of their work needs to acknowledged (very different from arguing that the work should be rejected, which seems to be what some angry audience members thought).
  • José Muñoz invoked Jean-Luc Nancy and spoke compellingly of the sense of the incalculable that is within the queer, the impossibility of reducing something so excessive into a politics. He spoke of the erotics of racial humiliation in Gary Fisher's work, a bit, but mostly focused upon the collaboration of Fisher and Eve Sedgwick, and what was incalculable between them: art, love, friendship, emotion, knowledge, freedom.
  • Roderick Ferguson delivered a fascinating, disturbing talk on the Academy as an archivizing institution which was essential to managing the challenge posed by the student protests of the 1960s and 70s. The admission of such groups into the university without any significant change to how the academy's business is undertaken established a powerful script for other institutions to follow, an absorption of difference that offers recognition as its own pleasure, as its own mere reward.
  • A few other standouts: Heike Raab on disability sex; Rachel White on the Chubsters, who embrace negativity as a form of queer activism; Anthony Clair wagner on the double challenge of being trans sex and trans species; Dora Danylevich on Lady Gaga, who is big in Berlin; Dominique Grisard on painting prison cells pink and the infantilization and feminization, as well as the pleasures this humiliation yields to those who undertake it (the talk alos included a cultural history of the color pink, and waded deep into a controversy that erupted repeatedly about the supposed Nazi origins of the pink triangle and the (mis)stakes of identifying with Jews and Roma in concentration camps)

And much more. All in all the conference was breathtaking. My brain is still in recovery.


Eileen Joy said...

I can only say . . . I wish I had been there. I would have liked to have heard Halberstam's full talk, and also Ferguson's. I think the masculinist ethos of much queer theory is not discussed enough [the subject is a tricky one, of course, and highly contentious, and yet one can't deny that so much of what might be called queer theory's foundational texts--by Sedgwick, Bersani, Edelman, Halperin, and others--has been driven by tropes borrowed from what are *seen* to be conventional male homosexual life-practices; Judith Butler's early work may be one of the major exceptions to this rule].

Ferguson's argument about the university absorbing [and thereby, I imagine, erasing] difference reminds me of the same argument Naomi Klein made in her book "No Logo" about the ways in which corporate America took up the identity politics of the 1970s and turned them into marketing techniques, thereby also subsuming the questions & politics surrounding difference into the always shifting and mobile signifiers of commerce that flatten everything into, um, *stuff* and desires for stuff [which masks all of the problems that never get solved, only aggravated, by consumerism and the unfettered movements of trans-national capital]. But Klein had a larger point that I think is important to consider and debate within queer studies as well--which is that identity politics lend themselves, perhaps too easily, to this kind of co-option. When different groups get the supposed "equality" or attention or regard they are looking for, in certain small-ish increments, they sometimes forget the larger [and more global-historical] struggles that implicate larger aggregates of persons, which might include all sorts of different smaller identity groups which sometimes see themselves in opposition to each other.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


For reasons I won't go into here, but that involve a disturbing incident I had last week with someone who tried to convince me that there is no such thing as a "moderate Muslim," I've been thinking a lot this past week about the ways in which "difference" is something special in need of protection but which also stands in the way of what might be called something like the possibility of understanding, tolerance, and peace. We want to both appreciate, and maybe even love, and protect, the radical alterity of everyone and everything, but the more we all settle into these differences as "shelters" or as lines that can't be crossed except in particular ways, then you have, like, war . . . to be blunt about it. I think that's why my favorite theorists in queer studies are, in the end, the later Sedgwick [especially for her ideas re: reparative reading and queer little gods], and the later Bersani for his ideas re: radical sameness and the necessity of overcoming one's supposed precious singularity in order to move less violently in the world, between and among other persons/things. It all seems to go back to Freud and "The Vicissitudes of the Id"--in order to individuate, you craft an "I" that is, in some important sense, *against* the world; the world becomes the enemy, everyone is a potential enemy. In order to do that, you need a notion of difference, of separation, and an individuality that has to be prized above everything & everyone else.

I would like to see a more nuanced version of "singularity" that would somehow move beyond the kinds of identity politics that are either satisfied too soon or that become violent through a kind of narcissistic extravagance [my world, at any cost, even if it means genocide, terrorism, etc.]. I think Michael Snediker's book "Queer Optimism" moves in this direction, as does some of Judith Butler's more recent work. I think Munoz's work is important for re-opening the question of utopia via alternative, avant-garde aesthetic practices, and anyone working on the "re-wiring" of the dark energies of violent pasts for more optimistic futural gains [i.e., Beth Freeman, but also Munoz] is tracking in the right direction. I also think the work of political theorists like Jane Bennett and Erin Manning ["The Politics of Touch"] and William Connelly ["Neuropolitics" and "A World of Becoming"], etc. should be taken up by queer studies and vice versa [for the purposes of working out new strategies of pluralism].

Eileen Joy said...

It seems to me that the critical question, in light of this conference's theme of queer studies in relation to power, politics, and ethics, will have something to do with how to craft a politics, or an ethics [or both] that both prizes queer singularities while never letting them harden into rigid domains of privilege and "territory"--this is a supreme difficulty. Everyone is the same; everyone is not the same. Both are true, but the former needs to matter more than the latter. That's just my opinion. That's why I like radical cosmpolitanism as a politics, but that's a whole other story.