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….

Queer is? Queer Does?

A couple of days ago I queried: Is trouble an adjective, a verb, a noun, or what? I came to the conclusion that all three of the ways in which to understand trouble (as describing a state; as an action; as a form of ethics/politics) were important. Today, as I was organizing my office (yes, I am still cleaning!), I came across a great article that I used last time I taught Queering Theory: Janet Jakobsen’s “Queer is? Queer Does? Normativity and the Problem of Resistance.” As “luck” would have it, the article was open to page 317–the page on which I have written in all caps: VERB NOUN ADJECTIVE. Sound familiar?

Jakobsen is discussing the nature of the term “queer”–is it just something you are, a queer (noun)? Or, is it something you do, engaging in resistance to norms and normalizations (verb)? Or is it something that describes who you are (adjective)? She concludes that queer is all three and that in order for us to fully engage with the term and to understand how it functions in specific and concrete practices we must consider how these three (noun, verb, adjective) are connected and how they work with and against each other.

One of Jakobsen’s primary concerns is that while we invoke “queer” as something that we should do (verb), we rarely interrogate how we should actually do it.  Jakobsen argues that “queer” becomes the ending, and the last word, on critiques of lesbian/gay or feminist politics. “We stick with invocation,” she argues, “because we don’t fully know how to talk or write differently, to produce something other than an ending” (512). But, what would it look like to think through what it means (and how it feels) to do queer, or, as Jakobsen puts it, to make queer the starting point of our thinking and writing instead of the ending?

In “Queer is? Queer Does?” Jakobsen uses queer as the starting point for a “thinking through of the complications of embodiment, of resistance, of norms, and of the associated terms of normativity and the normal” (512). She asks: What is a norm and how does it differ from (hetero/homo) normativity or being normal? What ethical/political possibilities open for our understanding of how we can and do resistance (that is, have political and moral agency) when we think beyond queer doing as resisting the Norm? What happens when we start to unpack normal/normativity’s “matrix of multiple, contradictory norms” (513)?

Is any of this making sense? I have to admit that I have struggled with writing this entry for several days. It has gone through several permutations (including linking Jakobsen’s argument with Nikki Sullivan’s chapter, “Queer: A Question of Being or Doing?” and the complicated history of identity politics. Thankfully, I thought better about opening up that whole can of worms. It is July, after all. If I started writing about identity politics, I would still be writing this entry in October!). So, why is this article so troublesome? Why am I having difficulty writing about it? The last time I taught Queering Theory, I assigned it. We discussed it a little, but I remember thinking that we didn’t really get at the complexity of Jakobsen’s argument. Why?

I really like Jakobsen’s argument. The idea of thinking through how we actually queer (as a doing, as resistance) is very important. And her disentangling of “norms,” “normal” and “normativity” is crucial for developing a queer ethics. But, this article is long and complicated and takes on a lot. Her argument seems to require significant background knowledge of poststructural conversations about the” tension between the radical critique of subjectivity” and “the political project of undertaking resistance” (514). And, if that weren’t enough, she continues on by connecting her discussion with Barbara Streisand, her “queer nose,” and the intersections between being/doing queer and jewishness. Wow!

I will read this article again (and again and, perhaps, again). And I will try to figure out how to use it for my queering theory class. Maybe I should just use a part of it? Hmmm…

One last thing: As I was reading through Gloria Anzaldua’s “To(o) Queer the Writer–Loca, escritora y chicana,” I came across this related passage:

Oblivious to privilege and wrapped in arrogance, most writers from the dominant culture never specify their identity; I seldom hear them say, I am a white writer. If the writer is middle class, white and heterosexual s/he is crowned with the “writer” hat–no mitigating adjectives in front of it. They consider me a a Chicana writer, or a lesbian Chicana writer. Adjectives are a way of constraining and controlling. ‘The more adjectives you have the tighter the box.’ The adjective before a writer marks, for us, the “inferior” writer, that is, the writer who doesn’t write like them. Marking is always “marking down” (250-251).

This pasage is helpful for thinking about the implications of using and not using adjectives. Is discussing queer in terms of its role as a noun, adjective and/or verb, useful for thinking through what queer (and maybe trouble too?) is?

in these troubling times what we need is some queer optimism…

A few days ago I wrote about troublemaking hope here and queer hope here. At the end of my post on queer hope, which was primarily about Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,  I pondered:

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 the midst of doing more prep work for my queering theory course (and by prep work I mean finding books on amazon that I might want to use and then skimming through the “customers who bought this item also bought” section), I came across a book by Michael Snediker called, Queer Optimism. The description of his project intrigued me:

Michael Snediker offers a much-needed counterpoint to queer theoretical discourse, which has long privileged melancholy, self-shattering, incoherence, shame, and the death drive. Recovering the forms of positive affect that queer theory has jettisoned, Snediker insists that optimism must itself be taken beyond conventional tropes of hope and futurity and reimagined as necessary for critical engagement.

-1Cool. So, we can have a positive vision of queer ethics/theory/politics that is not shaped by some futural vision of hope. Instead of queer hope we have queer optimism. This idea hadn’t occurred to me and I am very interested in reading more about what Snediker is suggesting. I haven’t had a chance to get the book from the library yet, but I did find Snediker’s earlier essay from 2006 about queer optimism. I am in the process of reading it right now. In this essay, Snediker assesses the foundational queer-as-pessimistic suffering theories of Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick and Lee Edelman and argues for an alternative: queer-as-non-futural-optimism. Huh? Here, I will let Snediker explain. Queer optimism

doesn’t ask that some future time make good on its own hopes. Rather, queer optimism asks that optimism, embedded in its own immanent present, be interesting. Queer optimism’s interest–its capacity to be interesting, to hold our attention–depends on its emphatic responsiveness to and solicitation of rigorous thinking (2).

I am not sure if his explanation helped any better than mine. I will have to tackle this again once I have read the whole essay–all 50 pages of it! At this preliminary stage, Snediker’s counter to both hopeful optimism (what he calls utopic optimism) and queer pessimism has got me thinking about hope, troublemaking, and queer ethics as something more than just a rejection of ethics/politics/culture (which is Edelman’s position). I especially appreciate his critical approach to Butler’s emphasis on melancholy, suffering and grief. As someone who is in the process of grieving for a loved one (who, while still barely alive, has virtually no livable life), I have found Butler’s work to be very helpful in my reflecting on the process of grief/mourning/loss. Yet, as I experience the pain and suffering of that grief, I find myself wondering, should grief (being undone by others) be the only, or at least primary, foundation for an ethics of accountability to others/the Other? Are there alternative, more positive and perhaps joyful, ways in which to think about how and why we are accountable to and responsible for others? Personally, I think being in a constant state of grief is exhausting and overwhelming and one that I am quite ready to get out of. I like the idea of imagining an ethic that is queer (and full of troublemaking) but not predicated on this negative sense of loss.

Can Snediker deliver on the promise of his concept? Wait, am I imposing hopeful optimism on him? Hopefully (argh! there I go again), I can wrap my brain around his vision of optimism by the time I finish the essay.

Troubling (and queering) religion: a few sources

My academic background is in religion. Before getting a PhD in Women’s Studies at Emory University, I got a MA in Theology, Ethics and Culture at the School of Theology at Claremont and a BA in Religion from Gustavus Adolphus College. While my work has shifted away from religion/religious ethics in recent years, my early training and interest in religion has persisted and managed to remain a big influence on my thinking.

In the past few years I have felt increasingly compelled to bring that early training back to the forefront in order to give some serious attention to the connections between ethics, religion, queer theory, feminism and troublemaking. And yes, contrary to popular opinion, there are connections (and not just negative ones!). You can be feminist and ethical! You can believe in a queer God! You can even make trouble and proudly label it religious activity! What, don’t believe me? Here are just a few sources that support my claims:

album-the-troublemakerTHE TROUBLEMAKER
I came across this song when I was randomly googling troublemaking. I’m Learning to Share focuses on Della Reese’s version of it from 1971, but Willie Nelson also sang it on his gospel album of the same name.

Warning Spoiler Alert: The song is all about a troublemaker who had long hair, no job and refused to join the army. He and his friend were rebels who went from town to town stirring up trouble. He was eventually arrested, tried and given the death penalty. At the end of the song, he is hung from a cross. Whoah…What a twist. Jesus as a troublemaker? Okay, the song is a little cheesy, but the connection between troublemaking and Jesus-as-prophet is pretty cool.

This connection is not limited to popular music and the likes of hippy-loving Willie Nelson, however. Cornel West writes about deep democracy, the Socratic tradition and the prophets (prophetic pragmatism) in Democracy Matters. Incidentally, when I presented on Judith Butler and the virtue of troublemaking at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2007, my dad (a religion and ethics scholar) suggested that I explore the prophet-troublemaker connection. Thanks AEP!

Reverend Dr. Carter Heyward gave a sermon (I originally linked to it, but the link doesn’t work anymore–as of April 29, 2012) in 2004 at the Episcopal Divinity School. Very cool. Here is her definition of queer. A queer is someone who has an “irrepressible interest in making connections between justice struggles and making these connections public. Not hiding [their] convictions under a barrel. Not remaining silent when everyone around [them] would be more comfortable if they were…” and who does so with compassion and love. For Heyward, being queer is being confrontational and compassionate. It is to embody apparent (but only apparent) contradictions, to be angry (about injustice) and yet to love all of humanity at the same time. For Heyward, to be queer in this way is to embody Christ–who holds together qualities that only appear to be contradictions (but aren’t–and that simultaneous embracing of seemingly contradictory qualities is what makes Christ queer).

note: Since this sermon doesn’t seem to be available online anymore, here’s a passage that I particularly liked:

What makes her, my mother so queer is not simply that she is supportive of her lesbian daughter and my friends and communities; and not simply that she is at strong odds with the prevailing political culture in both the world and church in which she has grown old. What makes my mother queer is her irrepressible interest in making connections among justice struggles and making these connections public! Not hiding her convictions under a barrel. Not remaining silent when everyone around her would be more comfortable if she were sometimes a little less in their face about Bush, the war, and gay marriage. At the same time, you will never meet a gentler, kinder, more compassionate soul than my mother Mary Ann Carter Heyward.

Is she in your face about injustice? Yes.

Is she open to you and eager to know what really makes you tick? Yes.

Is she angry about the injustices we join in and perpetuate? Yes.

Is she compassionate and forgiving toward everyone she has met who has hurt her or done her wrong? Yes.

The queerest thing of all about my mother is that she is such a bundle of apparent contradictions. She is confrontational and compassionate, angry and gentle, representing for me One through whom we meet God face to face. There are many people, including many right here in this chapel, who embody Christ for me in stunning ways. But there is no one through whom I catch stronger intimations and glimpses of the Wisdom of God, Christ herself, than my own queer mother.

This is because the most dynamic dimension of Queerness – and Christ – is the holding together of qualities that only appear to be contradictions, qualities that are not in fact contradictory or oppositional, qualities that taken together are, well, simply “queer.” Each brings out something in the other, revealing it more fully for what it is: humanity and divinity, anger and compassion, the struggle for life and the letting go of it, a capacity to wrestle fiercely against the enemies of justice and to love them concretely, which means trying to do them no harm, trying not to humiliate them, respecting them as brothers and sisters, whether or not they recognize us. Like the humanity and divinity we meet in Jesus and — through him as our spiritual lens — in one another, we also can experience anger and compassion, anger and gentleness, anger and forgiveness, anger and hope not as contradictory feelings but rather as mutually interactive dynamics of human being and divine being that work together in us and make us whole.

AlthausR_QueerGod-smllTHE QUEER GOD
Marcella Althaus-Reid wrote this book in 2003. I wanted to use it, or at least parts of it, in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class this past spring, but I couldn’t find any room for it. I am still trying to figure how to squeeze in a chapter or two in Queering Theory this fall. Is this book accessible for non-theology, non-religion students? I am not sure. I need to read it more closely to make sure. Here is part of the blurb on the back of the book:

The Queer God introduces a new theology from the margins of sexual deviance and economic exclusion. …Inspired by the transgressive spaces of Latin American spirituality, where the experiences of slum children merge with Queer interpretations of grace and holiness, The Queer God seeks to liberate god from the closet of traditional Christian thought, and to embrace God’s part in the lives of gays, lesbians and the poor.

The first chapter of this book that I want to read is “Chapter 8. Demonology: Embodying Rebellious Spirits.” Seems like I might find some interesting connections with troublemaking here.

This collection edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St.Ville was published in 2006 and offers a wide range of essays by scholars in biblical studies, ethics, theology and ritual studies on the religious significance of Judith Butler’s work. I am particularly interested in Claudia Schippert’s essay, “Turning on/To Ethics.” Schippert wrote another essay (in 1998) that I have just started entitled, “Too Much Trouble? Negotiating Feminist and Queer Approaches to Religion.” I hope to write more on this essay later. [In the process of looking up links for this edited collection, I found this queer theology bibliography. Must check some of these sources out later.]

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?