Oh bother, part 6

I saw this image in the November issue of Bon Appetit. It really doesn’t make me so mad that I can’t be bothered to think about it. For some reason, even as I find it to be rather problematic, I like it and that bothers me. We will be discussing this image at length in my queering theory class today–in connection with Judith Butler and her idea of performativity (as it is articulated in Gender Trouble). I can’t wait to see what the students think about it…


The ad copy reads: “Chill, ladies. Take a cue from our entertainment sink that chills champagne.”

So, what do you think?

What is queering theory, part 2: Explaining the title

The subject of class for Thursday (9.17) is “What is queering theory, part 2.” We will be focusing our attention on Cathy Cohen’s chapter in Black Queer Studies entitled, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (also found in GLQ). For this reading reflection post, instead of writing a lengthy post on Cohen’s argument, I thought I might briefly discuss one possible way to reflect on the reading–I call it “explaining the title.” [note to students in queering theory: you might find this form helpful to use in your “direct engagement” entries]

Many authors, myself included, like to spend a lot of time (maybe too much) picking out a title that succinctly or cleverly or playfully describes what our central argument is. So, as I often tell students,  one effective way for recognizing, understanding and articulating the thesis of a reading is to think (and write) about that reading’s title. While this doesn’t always work (some titles are hard to explain or don’t necessarily get at the point of the essay), I think it works quite nicely in the case of this reading. In fact, I think Cohen’s repeated explanation of the title (in different ways) throughout the essay is a real strength of the article.

Here is my brief explanation of the three parts (“Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare queens,” “The radical potential of queer politics,” and the ? mark at the end) of Cohen’s argument. Cohen believes the radical potential of queerness and queer politics can be found in queer’s ability to bring a wide range of non-normative folks–whose relationship to power marginalizes them in many different ways that are not exclusively based on heteronormativity, (like the punk, bulldagger and welfare queen)–together to engage in “progressive transformative coalition work” (22). Her question mark at the end of the title speaks to her doubt about whether this radical potential can be realized within the term “queer” and queer politics because queer, as it is currently used by queer theorists and white queer activists, fails to consider the complex (and intersecting) ways oppression occurs. Another way of explaining this doubt is this: queer politics frequently fails to attend to the complex ways in which power relations work and, without an analysis of power (and how it travels based on gender, sexuality, race and class), the radical potential of queer politics cannot be realized.

In case you are interested, my summary is 157 words. Now, this explanation of the title is a good starting point, but it doesn’t get at how Cohen makes this argument. In engaging with this reading, it would be helpful to offer a few examples that Cohen uses to support her argument. Like when she talks about how some queer politics-as-it-is, as particularly manifested in “I Hate Straights,” is based on a “single oppression framework” (31) that fails to offer any intersectional analysis of how power works outside of the hetero/homo divide (32). Or when she discusses how ‘mall visibility actions’ fail to address a whole bunch of reasons (besides sexuality) that queers might be feel alienated and unsafe in the mall (33). Or, you could talk about how she explains her title through a brief history of how marriage is an oppressive institution for many not just because it perpetuates heternormativity, but because it shores up “white supremacy, male domination, and capitalist advancement” (39).

I will admit, it can be hard to sum up an author’s argument in such a short amount of space. How do you think I did?

Can you ever really have too much trouble?

default_coverLast year I found this wonderfully titled article by Claudia Schippert in Theology and Sexuality: “Too Much Trouble? Negotiating Feminist and Queer Approaches in Religion.” (I also mention it here.) I have wanted to read it for a long time but, with all of the other things I have had to read, I just never got around to it. Now thanks to the summer (which is going by way too fast) and this blog, I have time and a reason to read it.

Schippert begins her essay by discussing the “troubling” relationship between queer-as-resisting-norms (Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet ) and ethics. She ponders two questions (actually, the same question, just worded differently): 1. “Are opposition to normativity and work in feminist ethics mutually exclusive endeavors” (47)? and 2. “Does Michael Warner’s well-known definition of queer theory as resistance to ‘heteronormativity’ contradict/preclude the doing of ethics or other engagement with norms” (48)?

The popular answer to this question, she argues, is yes. Many theorists believe that queer, as a practice and approach, is empty of ethical content. As a result, few studies of queer ethics exist (remember, this essay was originally a presentation at the American Academy of Religion conference in 1998). Even those ethical and/or queer theorists who answer “no” do so in a somewhat superficial way by merely replacing gay/lesbian with queer and simplistically equating it with defiant (52).

Linking her project with Janet Jakobsen’s essay “Queer is? Queer Does?” (which I discuss here), Schippert contends that queer ethics is possible but only by directly engaging with the tension (between resistance to norms–the queer project–and the production/analysis of norms–the ethical project) and by exploring the “specific practices of enacting and deploying norms” (53). She also refuses (in a wonderful moment of troublemaking) to offer a clear and final resolution to the tension between queer and norms. In particular, she does not want to resolve that tension by finding “better” norms (norms that are not heteronormative/oppressive/restrictive). She wants to shift attention towards: 1. examining “other” sites where the troubling of norms (through taking on the abject position) has been successful and 2. thinking through what those sites might have to offer scholars in their development of an ethics that takes queer resistance seriously.

Huh? I think I understand what she is saying here. Central to her argument is the concept of taking on the abject position. First, by abject she means the “realm of unintelligibility which contains that which is cast out” (58). The abject position is inhabited by those who don’t make sense, whose experiences/bodies/identities/practices aren’t recognized as normal or coherent and who exist outside of the dominant framework of white and heterosexual. By “taking on” the abject position, she means two things: 1. embodying or taking up the abject position and 2. defying/resisting that position. This abject position, which she discusses in relation to Evelynn Hammonds and her article, “Black W(holes) and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” and Judith Butler and her notion of “reworking of abjection into political agency” in Bodies That Matter, is not quite a position (because it is untelligible).  But, in taking it on, it is possible to attend to the material effects of those norms that produce one as abject (taking on = embodying) and to reject/disavow (taking on = defiance) those norms.

Ummm…I thought I understood what she was saying, but now I am not so sure. I think I am almost there but her argument (which connects Butler, Hammonds and Katie Cannon with ethical critiques of queer and the citing of queer in religion) seems a little too crowded here. I do like her final paragraph (even as I am not quite sure how she gets there–almost…but not quite):

Expanding the very meaning of what counts as valuable bodies…

Wait, what does she mean here? Let me look at her earlier argument again. I think she is arguing, by drawing upon Katie Cannon and her work in Womanist Ethics, that taking on (embodying) the abject position but refusing to fully inhabit it (taking on as resistance) enables us to rework norms and open up new positions and understandings of what counts as normal/valued/valuable bodies.

…will, without a doubt, get us into more, and different kinds of, trouble.

Trouble in the form of disrupting disciplines (like religion/religious ethics), reworking what counts as resistance and a resisting position, and disturbing traditional notions of what counts as a valued and intelligible body.

But, finally, to answer the other questions I asked earlier [is trouble worth it?]: yes, it definitely would be worthwhile (63).

I like her emphasis on trouble in this essay. Trouble as having ethical possibility. Trouble (through taking on the abject position) as reworking/expanding our understandings of normativity and as attending to material effects of that normative process. As I mentioned before, I still feel as if I have a tenuous understanding of her argument.  Maybe I need to turn to a later version of it in “Turning on/to Ethics” from Bodily Citations.

This essay is from 2006…8 years after the first article. At first glance, Schippert seems to be offering a very similar argument using Butler, Hammonds and Cannon again. Yet, one key ingredient is missing: trouble. Schippert has shifted her argument away from a focus on trouble (as that which connects the readings, as a popular and important way to think about Butler’s work and queer theory’s relation to ethics, and as the useful product of exploring tensions between queer resistance and norm production). The title of the essay is now, “Turning on/to ethics” and refers to how Butler’s work is not a turning on (as in evading, defying, betraying) ethics, but a turning to it.

Why does Schippert move away from the language of trouble? Could this shift reinforce my belief that one popular reading of Butler’s recent work as a turn to ethics is actually a turn away from the immature/youthful/anti-ethical ideas about trouble-as-disruption-and-subversion that permeate Gender Trouble? Sigh…Wait, could this move from “Too much trouble?” to “Turning on/to Ethics” play a key role in my analysis of Butler’s so-called shift? I think so. Excellent.

Of course, I still need to figure out exactly what Schippert’s argument is in both of these articles. More on that soon….

in honor of my 50th post!

Yes, this is my 50th post. 36,301 words, give or take a few. Not that I am counting or anything. In honor of this very “important” occasion I want to do a series of entries on my theory of the ethics of making, being in and staying in trouble. Rather fitting since making/being in/staying in trouble is the theme of this blog, don’t you think? Okay, there is another reason why I am posting these entries now. I am presenting on this subject at the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference in September and I need to start polishing my remarks. I thought working through them on the blog might be helpful.

Initially I was planning to post the entire presentation on here–in chunks of course. But, now I am thinking it would be better to pull out some troublesome bits (as in parts that I want to flesh out/clarify)and reflect on them. But in this entry, I think I will just introduce my project. Here is the abstract for the FEAST presentation:

ABSTRACT: In the 1990 preface to Gender Trouble, Judith Butler reflects on trouble and its value, concluding “that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it” (Gender Trouble, vii). With this statement, Butler introduces a central theme that continues to shape and motivate much of her work: learning how to make trouble and be in trouble are important tasks of the resisting subject. In this presentation, which comes out of a larger project on troublemaking as a virtue, I argue that Butler’s opening statement about troublemaking in Gender Trouble is not only a critical and provocative intervention into feminist politics as usual, but is an ethical gesture towards the dignity, desirability and necessity of troublemaking. This gesture, which is taken up more explicitly by Butler in Undoing Gender, points to two separate but related ethical projects involving troublemaking. The first project is concerned with making trouble and being in trouble in ways that extend and rework norms so that they make more lives possible and livable. The second project is concerned with exploring what is demanded of us as moral selves as we strive to stay in trouble.  I will conclude my presentation by tentatively linking the second of those projects with my own work on troublemaking as a feminist virtue.

9780415389556I am exploring the ethical possibilities of Butler’s work on troublemaking. It is exciting to see the recent interest, both by Butler and those writing about her, in connecting her work with ethics. For too long, the popular (among academics, that is) understanding of Gender Trouble is that is was not only counter but harmful to ethics/ethical projects. I remember this happening a lot in grad school. Ah, grad school…On the first day of every semester you had to go around the room and give your little spiel about what your academic interests were. Although I tried to mix it up, I usually ended up saying something about the ethical possibilities in the work of Judith Butler. One time, after giving my spiel, the professor sarcastically uttered, “good luck with that.” Oh bother. Anyway, the tide has changed and more scholars are writing and thinking about Butler and ethics. Moya Loyd writes about it. So do Samuel Chambers and Terrell Carver and Gill Jagger. Butler writes about it here, here, here, and with Catherine Mills and Fiona Jenkins here.

But, even as scholars have begun to think about ethics and Butler, their attention has frequently been on Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. What about Gender Trouble? Does it have anything to offer to ethics, feminist, queer or otherwise? Or is it part of a different stage in Butler’s thinking? On one hand, I can appreciate the need to turn to other texts. It is true, as Samuel Chambers and Terrell Carver suggest in their introduction to Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics, that an overemphasis on Gender Trouble (which is often the only book that some people think Butler wrote) can obscure our understandings of Butler’s contributions to political [and ethical] thought beyond gender and gender performativity (5). However, failing to consider the ethical import of Gender Trouble could be sending the worrisome (well, at least to me) message that troublemaking/troublestaying, which is first and most directly articulated in Gender Trouble, has no ethical value. And often implied in that message is the idea that engaging in the troubling of gender is something that Butler used to promote–that is before she grew up and turned to more serious matters, like ethics and morality.

This idea that Gender Trouble and troublemaking is immature and therefore unethical raises several questions for me: 1. As Butler (and her work) has grown older, has she matured beyond Gender Trouble and troublemaking? Has she replaced her “childishness” and lack of seriousness (playfulness?) with more weighty matters–like being undone, normative violence, grief?; 2. Does one have to be “serious” and mature (that is, not young and immature) in order to engage in ethics? Can we imagine ethical visions that are not predicated on this equation of  maturity + seriousness = responsible/accountable and ethical?; and 3. Is troublemaking too playful, too immature, and therefore not ethical?

In my own work, I offer a very strong “No!” to this last question. Indeed, I am devoting a huge chunk of this blog to the idea that troublemaking, as a practice and an approach to life, has much to offer to feminist and queer ethical visions/projects. And in my presentation at FEAST I argue that Butler plants the seed for her future work on troublemaking as ethical in Gender Trouble. It is my contention that Butler’s recent work on ethics is not so much a turn to ethics (and a turn away from all that playful/immature performativity of her past) but a return to or maybe an extension of the ethical gesture towards troublemaking/troublestaying that she first makes in the 1990 preface to Gender Trouble.

Queer hope: Is it possible when we have no future?

no-future-7977791I have started the laborious (yet fun–I am a nerd, remember?) process of figuring out what readings I want to include in my syllabi for the fall. Today I am thinking about my Queering Theory course. Ever since I found out about in the spring of 2008, I have wanted to give some attention to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. In this polemic, Edelman argues for a queer ethics that is counter to “reproductive futurism” with its emphasis on building better futures for our children. He writes:

Indeed, at the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.

So, what does this mean and what are the implications for our ethical and political projects? Some unpacking of terms is needed here. Simply put, reproductive futurism is the belief that our participation in politics–indeed, the political itself–is motivated by a belief in and a desire for creating better futures for our children. We are, in Edelman’s words, always “fighting for our children.” Reproductive futurism suggests two things: a. there is a future that we can make better–that has “unquestioned value and purpose” (4) and b. that future is emblemized by the Child. For Edelman, this reproductive futurism is linked to heteronormativity (heterosexual as the only normal, natural, right way to be) and renders any alternatives (queerings) of communal relations/kinship/visions of resistance as unthinkable–how could you possibly be against fighting for the children?–and outside of politics. Wow, I hope that makes sense. Now, why does Edelman make this radical claim? Because queerness/queering is not possible in a politics of reproductive futurism, he wants to encourage the stepping outside its logic and into the space of refusal and negativity–the space of the death drive (warning: psychoanalysis alert!)–where there is no future.

I have only just (barely) skimmed the introduction and table of contents of this book, so I am having a difficult time explaining all of this in coherent, compelling and intelligible (non-jargony) ways. Clearly, I need to engage in a much closer reading of this text. The more I think about his ideas, the more I think I want to use this in my class. It raises some great questions for my own work and for one way I am thinking of organizing the course: What would it mean to think about political and ethical projects outside of this logic of better futures on behalf of our children (especially for those of us who are parents and/or are heavily invested in children/youth)? What could a radically negative politics looks like? Are negativity and a refusal to engage in political projects aimed at transformation or ethical projects aimed at striving for the good what queer is essentially about? Is the only way in which to imagine a queer ethics negatively and in opposition to any claims, normative or otherwise?

halberstamIn what I have skimmed so far, Edelman seems to be theorizing queer theory in relation to time (queer time = no future, no linear progression) and space (queer space = outside of politics/social) which makes me think of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place. In this collection of essays, Halberstam explores queer time and queer space in order to shift the perspective on queerness from an identity or set of activities to “a way of life” (1). I am fairly sure that I want to use several chapters out of this book as well. Now I just need to think about how to put them in conversation with Judith Butler, who remains a big focus of the class.

Final thought: It seems appropriate to follow my last post on Michael Jackson and hope (both the loss of it and how we might rethink it) with this one on no future and the death drive. There are some significant connections between my comments about Jackson (and my reference to k-punks posting on him) and any thinking through of Edelman’s idea of no future (which k-punk also writes about here four years earlier!). One connection between No Future/critique of reproductive futurism and Michael Jackson is found in k-punk’s post. K-punk writes:

Certainly, Edelman explicitly identifies the logic of reproductive futurism as ‘poptimism’, whose ‘locus classicus is Whitney Houston’s rendition of the secular hymn, “I believe that children are our future”, a hymn we might as well make our national anthem and be done with it.’ (143) In fact, though, ‘We are the World’ might be the better choice for reproductive futurist anthem: we are the world, we are the children (therefore it is OK for us to bomb other people’s children – because they aren’t the Future.)

Wasn’t “We are the World” a central part of the recent tribute to MJ? Interesting… In case you don’t yet have the song in your head, here it is:

There is another connection with which I want to end this post. The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together? In my last post, I pointed to Cornel West and his tragic hope as one that is counter to the vision of hope as innocent (the Child?) and naive. But is his notion of tragic hope entrenched in a heteronormative (non-queer/anti-queer) vision? After all, he is very invested in defending and revaluing parents. Hmmm…Queer hope. A future article, perhaps?