Human-ities · Philosophy · Social/Politics · Theory

Queer and Then?

Duke University Press ends its influential Series Q this month. It has been an impressive ride since the first book in the series: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s landmark 1993 collection of essays, Tendencies. Rereading her introduction, “Queer and Now,” I am reminded of the potent sense of possibility opened up 20 years ago by the idea of queer theory. The sense of a historical moment is strong in the essay, as its title underscores. Sedgwick’s optimism was far from naïve; the same introduction disclosed her diagnosis of breast cancer, which she lived with and against until her death in 2009. Fittingly, the last volume released by Series Q is a posthumous collection of her remaining essays, The Weather in Proust.

Taken together, Sedgwick’s death, the passage of time, and the news from Duke all seem to be occasions for taking stock. Even before the press’s decision, many in the field were already in a retrospective mood. A recent book in the same series, After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory, asked leading queer theorists to look back on the great ferment of the last two decades. The title of the book seems to place queer theory firmly in the past, though the editors, Janet Halley and Andrew Parker, generously shift the emphasis in their introduction: “What has queer theory become now that it has a past?”

The answer depends on how much queer theory is defined by the speculative energy that the phrase itself generated in the 1990s. The label, after all, came into circulation only after the major theoretical innovations that defined it—in the work of Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin, Leo Bersani, the early Sedgwick, Judith Butler, as well as many others. Those writers had already developed an analysis of sexuality that looked to relations of power rather than to individual psychology or “orientation.” And they had already shown that sex, pleasure, and the formation of sexual cultures posed deep challenges to the normative frameworks by which some kinds of sex are legitimated and institutionalized as the proper form of sexuality. As several contributors to After Sex? point out, queer theory’s intellectual concerns have given rise to newer kinds of work, and are continued under other rubrics.

When Teresa de Lauretis and her colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz organized a conference called “Queer Theory” in 1990, it was manifestly provocative. The term “queer” in those days was not yet a cable-TV synonym for gay; it carried a high-voltage charge of insult and stigma. The term caught on because it seemed to catalyze many of the key insights of previous years and connect them to a range of politics and constituencies that were already developing outside academe, in a way that looked unpredictable from the start. At the 1991 Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference at Rutgers University at New Brunswick—the fifth to be held since John Boswell started the meetings at Yale University in 1987 and exponentially larger than its predecessors—the informal talk about “queer” was almost as frisky as the cruising.

A paper by Michael Warner at the The Chronicle Review. Continue HERE

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