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?

terms? what terms?

This blog is all about experimenting. Experimenting with blog writing. Experimenting with teaching ideas. And experimenting with how best to organize my posts, both for the reader who is reading it (in theory, at least) and for me who is using it as a reflecting-on-my-research-tool. Sometimes experiments fail. Well, maybe fail is too harsh. Experiments go awry or have unanticipated effects; they don’t work quite right. Like my “terms” category. If memory serves me right (ah, Japanese Iron Chef how I miss you so), this was my description of the purpose/goal of this category:

TERMS: While writing in this blog, I may come across terms that need some clarification or explanation. Perhaps they are loaded (with theoretical baggage) terms. Perhaps they come off as too jargony and inaccessible. Perhaps they are rich with meaning and require some unpacking. For whatever reason, I will devote an entry to explaining/reflecting on a term that requires additional consideration and file it under this category. Right now I am experimenting with how best to engage with (and explain/reflect on) these terms.

Here are the entries (all 10 of them) that I have done so far. They aren’t working quite like I had planned. Everything started out okay. My first three entries follow my goal as it is outlined in the “about the categories” post. But, then I lost steam. In the abstract, offering a glossary of loaded terms seems great. I even have a to do list, which includes:

  • liminal
  • abject
  • virtue
  • queer/queering
  • performativity
  • agonism (versus antagonism)
  • excess
  • livable life
  • beside oneself
  • truth-telling

If you are thinking that this looks like A LOT of work, you are right. Maybe that’s why I haven’t done these posts yet. Would this be a good assignment for students in my queering theory course? Hmm…

Okay, here comes a mini brainstorming session. Now you can really see how my brain works. Is the idea of creating a glossary terms just more work than I can do or is there something inherently wrong or too difficult about the task? I have assigned students certain terms in past classes, but it hasn’t ever worked out very well. Part of the problem could be that I made the assignment too informal–it was an in-class, small group assignment. Also, I didn’t offer any models/examples of how to describe/engage with the term. Would it work better if I made this term assignment formal (as in, built into the syllabus and with detailed instructions) and if I provided more examples of how to do it? Should students do these terms independently or work in pairs/groups? Or, what if I picked out a term for each week, one that the readings touched on particularly well, and then have students focus their reading/thinking around that term? Then, I could have the students get together at the beginning of class and compare their ideas before we launch into our discussion? Any thoughts? I will report back on what I actually decide to do.

Okay, enough of that musing. Back to the terms as I have written them on this blog. Even though they don’t exactly fit with my intended goal, I do still think that my posts are useful (for me? yes. for you? who knows). I have written about several terms that describe a particular way of embodying the troublemaker: the rebel, the whisteblower, the bullshit detecter. I have also written about terms that engage with the ethical implications of trouble: queer hope, queer optimism, curiosity-as-care. Perhpas I shouldn’t judge the terms so soon–maybe I should assess them later, once I have spent more time writing in this blog?

Is trouble an adjective, a verb, a noun, or what?

I was very excited to see the subtitle of this book by Samuel A. Chambers and Terrell Carver: Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics. Like me, Chambers and Carver are interested in giving serious attention to Butler’s idea and practices of troublemaking. Excellent. As political theorists, their focus is on the politics of troubling. Connected but different, my approach is on the ethics of troublemaking and troublestaying.

Check out their description of the goal of the book:

Our goal in this book is to explore the types of trouble that Butler has got herself and her readers into, to investigate the manner in which she has made trouble and to track the effects that her troubling has had on politics and the political. In so doing we seek to bring Butler into clearer view as a political thinker–to bring to light her political theory as a politics of troubling and troubling of politics (2).

I find their discussion of troubling, especially in the introduction, to be very helpful in clarifying how troubling functions within Butler’s work. In that introduction, they offer three different ways in which to understand troubling politics

Cov_118221First, the troubling in troubling politics is an adjective. The vision of politics that comes out of Butler’s work is troubling (as in worrisome, disturbing, unsettling, problematic) to many theorists/activists. These critics describe Butler’s politics as troubling to indicate that there is something not quite right about her project, especially her understanding of the political subject. Sure, she might develop a vision of politics and political action, but that vision produces a politics that is troubled/troubling and that, according to some, doesn’t ultimately work. And because it is troubling to others/doesn’t really work, Butler’s vision of politics gets her in trouble.

Second, the troubling in troubling politics is a verb. Through her interrogation of feminist politics and her challenge to gender, Butler is destabilizing feminist politics as usual with the aim of transforming it. In this sense, Butler is engaged in the act of troubling politics and the term troubling describes that act.

Third, the troubling in troubling politics is a noun. Throughout Gender Trouble and beyond, Butler has developed a political vision that is predicated on (it is its groundless ground perhaps?) troubling everything: subjects, identity categories, politics, ethics, democracy, The Brady Bunch (oh wait, that’s me, not Butler). Troubling is not a description used to modify and undercut politics (adjective). Nor is it something that one does to politics (verb). Instead, it is “its own politics” (9).

Exactly. Could there be a correlation between these three types of troubling and my versions of trouble on this blog (that is, making/being in/staying in trouble)?

  • Does trouble as an adjective describe the state of being in trouble?
  • Does trouble as a verb describe the act of making trouble?
  • Does trouble as a noun describe the ethics of staying in trouble?

Wow. I need to think about this some more. How do these three understandings of trouble work together/against each other to form a more systematic politics and ethics of troublemaking? Are there other ways to describe trouble? How is my vision of troublemaking connected/disconnected from Chambers’/Carver’s vision here? Is it helpful to think about trouble in this way or do I just like it because of my fixation on things-in-threes (I am my father’s daughter) and things-that-fit-in-neat-packages? Ah well, three is a magic number…

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.

the rebel as troublemaker: a few sources

I was in the process of cleaning my home office when I realized that maybe, just maybe, having 57 books (and more coming soon, including Queer Optimism) checked out of the U’s library is too many–especially since I have had some of those books for a couple of years. Yikes. So, in the interest of cataloging some of the important parts of these many books so that I can return them, I offer this post on the rebel and rebellion.

by Gloria Steinem

This is an edited collection of Steinem’s greatest hits from the 1970s and 80s. I picked it up over a year ago because I was interested in what she might have to say about the rebel and rebellion as a concept and a practice. Having skimmed the introduction (finally), I am happy to return it. I was hoping for a more substantial fleshing out of what is meant by everyday rebellion and outrageous acts than Steinem offers. Instead she provides a narrative of her own experiences as a writer, engaged in the rebellious practice of speaking her mind–and writing about it too! I have nothing against Steinem, I just don’t find her description (or lack thereof) of rebellion to be very compelling or thought-provoking.

by Minnie Bruce Pratt

Before skimming this book there were three things that I knew about Minnie Bruce Pratt. First, she wrote a highly influential essay, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” that served as the inspiration for Chandra Mohanty and Biddy Martin in their article, “What’s Home Got to Do With It?” I read this article as part of my masters’ research on identity politics in 1997/98. Sadly, I have yet (over 10 years later) to read Pratt’s essay in its entirety. Second, Pratt is one of several (Dorothy Allison and Mab Segrest are two other important ones) Southern white lesbian writer-activists who reflect on their intersecting experiences as white, Southern, female, feminist and lesbian. Third, Pratt is partners with another highly influential writer/activist within the worlds of gender studies, Leslie Feinberg. But, enough of that trivia. Back to the book. The first essay in this collection is “Rebellion” and in it Pratt does a much better job than Steinem in fleshing out exactly what rebellion is to her. Pratt places her experiences growing up in a very racist Southern community at the center of her coming-to-consciousness as a rebel. Here is how Pratt defines (and practices) rebellion:

when we speak, say certain things, certain words, we rebel; we put ourselves outside manners and civilization; we step over a boundary into the forbidden (24).

This speaking and saying certain words that are not supposed to be said is what Pratt practices through her writing and her everyday engagements with others (hmm….is this what Steinem was getting at with the everyday rebellions of her title?). She is a self-proclaimed rebel. But, as the final passage of her first essay suggests, she did not name her collected essays solely after herself and her own activism. She writes,

I begin to understand that a white woman of the South can live and write, but not of the dead heroes. She can live and write a new kind of honor, the daily, conscious actions of women in true rebellion (25).

Nice. I think I will have to keep this book for a little while longer. Or, maybe I should just buy it..

by Pat Califia

I think I picked up this book from the library in preparation for my Introduction to GLBT Studies course in the fall of 2008. I didn’t use any essays from it then and I probably won’t use anything from it this fall in Queering Theory. As I was scanning it earlier today I came across the introduction (which is always my favorite part of the book. Is that wrong? I like conclusions too!) and decided to throw it into the mix here. Slowly but surely I am learning more about the 70s/80s epic battle between anti-porn feminists like Dworkin and Mackinnon and pro-sex feminists like Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia. But that’s not why I had checked this book out. Pat, now Patrick, wrote a compelling piece entitled “Manliness” that is included in the Transgender Studies Reader. I had my students read it last fall and they really liked it.

But, I digress. Back to the introduction from Public Sex. For Califia, to rebel is to be a sex radical or someone who is not only deviant but defiant. The sex radical as rebel is

aware that there is something unsatisfying and dishonest about the way sex is talked about (or hidden) in daily life. [They] question they way our society assigns privilege based on adherence to its moral codes, and in fact, makes every sexual choice a matter of morality (11).

Here we go again. Morality is bad, as in repressive and prudish. Does Califia feel the same way about ethics? Is it possible to envision and construct morality (sexual morality) and/or ethics outside of the Moral Majority? Obviously Califia doesn’t think so. I will have to read more of this book to determine whether he believes that rebellion is always rebelling against ethics/morality and about being “bad.”

His reduction of morality to conservative and repressive thinking aside, I do like this introduction. Much like Steinem and Pratt, Califia places his discussion of rebellion in the context of his own experiences within feminism and the sex radical movement. I really like the conclusion to his section on what he left out of the book and that still needs to be done (and written about):

But this and other topics will have to wait for another book. I can’t imagine that there won’t be another book, just as I once couldn’t imagine living past thirty. Today, at the amazing age of forty, I am trying to cause just as much trouble as I did when I was twenty-five. Fifty should be awesome, and sixty incendiary (26).

Not only does he link rebellion with making trouble, but he envisions troublemaking as something sustainable–something to develop, maintain and promote throughout his life. Makes me think of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s fabulous essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” and her emphasis on politics as learning how to survive and continue to do important political work throughout your life.

by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett

Isn’t this title great? When I first found it online a few years ago, I was very excited. I should have bought this book in 2007, but it is really expensive–especially considering how small it is ($85 for 255 pages!), and my frugality won out over my desire to write in the margins. In this book (which I still need to read closely–and beyond the introduction), Bartlett suggests that there are some important connections to be made between Albert Camus’s work (especially in The Rebel) and feminist theory/activism. The book is organized around four core ideas that are fundamental to rebellion (and that are fleshed out by Camus and a wide range of feminist thinkers): 1. rejection of oppression and affirmation of dignity; 2. solidarity; 3. friendship and the primacy of concrete relationships; and 4. the valuing of immanence (5). I like Bartlett’s complex vision of rebellion, and her extension of it beyond the classic equation of rebellion = refusal or rejection. I also like her final chapter (yep, you guessed it–the conclusion!) on “A Politics of Limits and Healing.” Healing and limits are two themes that keep coming up in my work. I will have to let you know how Bartlett connects them and what she has to say about their value. Okay, here’s a teaser: she works through her ideas with the help of bell hooks and Audre Lorde (among others).

So, there you have it. But wait. While this lit review has helped me to catalog some important ideas from these books, it hasn’t helped encourage me to return them. It looks like I only plan to return the Steinem, but read more in the Pratt, Califia and Bartlett. Oh well. 1 down 56 to go.