Queer theory  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Queer theory was born out of philosophical investigations of what is known as third wave feminism. However, in the last 15 years, the term has taken shape as a new branch of thought that is suffused throughout the disciplines. Queer theory’s main project is exploring the contestations of the categorization of gender and sexuality.

Contents

History and background concepts

Queer Theory is a pairing of words coined by Teresa de Lauretis during a working conference on theorizing lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990. Around this time Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Epistemology of the Closet, David Halperin published One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and countless others went to work on this new area of thought. The beginning debates sometimes focused on social constructionist vs. essentialist ideologies. That is, are the categories of sexuality socially contrived, created through discourse, or are they natural givens, outside of our control to make or change?

This binary may itself be a false dichotomy, as discourse shapes our understanding of what is natural and what is cultural shapes discourse-- but it still is a useful starting point for exploring these debates. Constructivists counter that there is no natural, that all meaning is constructed through discourse and there is no other subject other than the creation of meaning for social theory.

In a Constructivist perspective it is not proper to take gay or lesbian as subjects with objective reality; but rather they must be understood in terms of their social context, in how genealogy creates these terms through history.

For example, as Foucault explains in his The History of Sexuality, 200 years ago there was no linguistic category for gay male. Instead, the term applied to sex between two men was sodomy. Over time the homosexual was created through the discourses of medicine and especially psychiatry. What is conventionally understood to be the same practice was gradually transformed from a sinful lifestyle into an issue of sexual orientation. Foucault argues that prior to this discursive creation there was no such thing as a person who could think of himself as essentially gay.

The role of biology

Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either "male" or "female," even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter's syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct genders. Intersexed individuals may for many different biological reasons have ambiguous sexual characteristics.

Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersexual individuals include Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ruth Hubbard and Carol Tavris.

Some key experts in the study of culture, such as Barbara Rogoff, believe that the traditional distinction between biology and culture is a false dichotomy since biology and culture are closely related and have a significant influence on each other.

In Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Anne Fausto-Sterling challenges many of the biological ‘facts’ surrounding how we constitute gender and sexuality. From genitalia to brain composition, “hormones and gender chemistry,” “toward a theory of human sexuality.” A feminist biologist, Fausto-Sterling navigates the scientific underpinnings of ‘sex.’ Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either male or female, even with scientific facts that support these demarcations. However, some queer theorists are beginning to acknowledge that the sexing of the body occurs as both a combination of social construction and the objective reality that biology studies. The disagreement between essentialism and constructivism is still fresh in this area.

As constructivists they reject that gender is an established category existing in reality. Gender is defined through shared meaning making in history.

The role of language

Michel Foucault discusses the discursive operations that shaped and constructed sexuality in the west in The History of Sexuality Vol. I. With his theory as a common point of interest (if not departure), queer theorists analyze the way sexuality is conceived through the use of language as a tool that structures knowledge. For Foucault there can be no separation of knowledge and power which are joined in genealogy. Discourse imposes categories as well as creates species as subjects.

In this constructivist view male and female have not independent reality in and of themselves, or none that can be known. Rather they are continually being created through discourse, that is knowledge and power is being exercised at all times to create men and women, and in the same way to construct species of sexual orientation, which are entirely constructed through discoursive operations.

Psychoanalysis, with the main figures Lacan and Freud, posit many theories regarding the ways that sexuality functions. Queer Theory would tend to reference Lacan preference of discourse as more constructive than a biological approach in Freud. Gender is constructed in discourse, and these discourse have a personal meaning through our early life experiences and attachments.

Philosophers like Judith Butler use these psychoanalytical theories in their own investigations, usually restructuring those theories in light of what is called heteronormativity, or the unacknowledged assumptions that underline many theories of sexuality, which count heterosexuality as normal and correct and mark all deviations abnormal and strange. Literary theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and historians like David Halperin add to the discussions of language's role in their analysis of and literary historical materials written and performed around or about sexuality.

In the 1990s saw an popular culture expansion of terms of sexuality, with homosexual and heterosexual beginning as a binary, with heterosexuality preferenced as normal giving way to a greater, and perhaps even more playful, growth of different ways of being sexual, with bisexual, transgender, bdsm coming in to their own as objects of discourse of sexuality, when before they were deviant or fetish. With the explosion of the Internet sexual orientations of any kind can now discover a discourse in which to find their own speech.

The critical import of the Internet to Queer Theory should not be underestimated. Traditional sexual categories of homosexuality evolved in a time when institutions dominated discourse through control of publishing means. Only medical schools, governments or universities could collect communities to engage in discourse. Prostitutes, sex workers, pornographers, and countless others had no official role in the creation of discourse and were objects.

With the Internet's explosions of discourse shared meaning making could be pursued by a vastly expanded community, first through usenet, then web pages and now in social networks people can create innersubjective assertions of their identity in sexuality.

HIV/ AIDS discourse

Much of queer theory developed out of a response to the AIDS crisis, which promoted a renewal of radical activism, and the growing homophobia brought about by public responses to AIDS. Queer theory became occupied in part with what effects - put into circulation around the AIDS epidemic - necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing in 'queer'.

Answering this question considered the ways in which the status of the subject or individual is problematized in the biomedical discourses which construct AIDS; the shift, effected by same sex education, in emphasizing sexual practices over sexual identities; the persistent misrecognition of AIDS as a gay disease and of homosexuality as a kind of fatality; the coalition politics of much AIDS activism that rethinks identity in terms of affinity rather than essence and therefore includes not only lesbians and gay men but also bisexuals, transsexuals, sex workers, people with AIDS, health workers, and parents and friends of gays; the pressing recognition that discourse is not a separate or second-order 'reality', and the constant emphasis on contestation in resisting dominant depictions of HIV and AIDS and representing them otherwise; and, finally, the rethinking of traditional understandings of the workings of power in cross-hatched struggles over epidemiology, scientific research, public health, and immigration policy.

The material effects of AIDS contested many cultural assumptions about identity, justice, desire and knowledge, which some scholars felt challenged the entire system of Western thought, believing it maintained the health and immunity of epistemology: "the psychic presence of AIDS signifies a collapse of identity and difference that refuses to be abjected from the systems of self-knowledge". Thus queer theory and AIDS become interconnected because each is articulated through a postmodernist understanding of the death of the subject and both understand identity as an ambivalent site.

Prostitution, pornography, and BDSM

Queer theory, unlike most feminist theory and lesbian and gay studies, includes a wide array of previously considered "non-normative" sexualities and sexual practices in its "list" of identities. Not all of these are non-heterosexual. Sadomasochism, prostitution, inversion, transgender, bisexuality, intersexuality, and many other things are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for more involved investigations into class difference and racial, ethnic and regional particulars allow for a wide ranging field of investigation using non-normative analysis as a tool in reconfiguring the way we understand pleasure and desire.

The key element is that as viewing sexuality as constructed through discourse no list or set constituted pre-existing sexuality realities but rather identities constructed through discoursive operations. It is important to consider discourse in its broadest sense as shared meaning making, as Foucault and Queer Theory would take the term to mean. In this way sexual activity, having shared rules and symbols would be as much a discourse as a conversation, and sexual practice itself constructs its reality rather than reflecting a proper biological predefined sexuality.

This point of view places these theorists in conflict with some branches of feminism that view prostitution and pornography, for example, as mechanisms for the oppression of women. Other branches of feminism tend to vocally disagree with this latter interpretation and celebrate pornography as a means of adult sexual representation.

Media and other creative works

Many queer theorists have created creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example, science fiction authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler feature many values and themes from queer theory in their work. Pat Califia's published fiction also draws heavily on concepts and ideas from queer theory. Some lesbian feminist novels written in the years immediately following Stonewall, such as Lover by Bertha Harris or Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, can be said to anticipate the terms of later queer theory.

In film, the genre christened by B. Ruby Rich as New Queer Cinema in 1992 continues, as Queer Cinema, to draw heavily on the prevailing critical climate of queer theory; a good early example of this is the Jean Genet-inspired movie Poison by the director Todd Haynes. In fan fiction, the genre known as slash fiction rewrites straight or nonsexual relationships to be homosexual, bisexual, and queer in sort of a campy cultural appropriation. And in music, some Queercore groups and zines could be said to reflect the values of queer theory.

Other readings and topics

Both Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have published numerous books and articles that continue what was begun in 1990. Judith Butler's notion of gender performativity comes out of J. L. Austin's notion of a performative utterance, or speech that performs an action. Gender, to Butler, is a constant reconstruction of one's identity. This is not a voluntary process, but rather is something that is interpellated by society and is a necessary precondition to one's existence as a subject.

Emerging as the leading alternative to Butler's domination of Queer Theory, Elizabeth Grosz, after leaving psychoanalysis, explores lesbian desire and space and time in Space, Time and Perversion. Judith Halberstam investigates female masculinity in her book Female Masculinity and queer space and time with In a Queer Time and Place. And there are many collections of essays and articles by countless academic and political authors writing about sexuality as it relates to postcolonial theory, literature, social science, politics, and identity.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Queer theory" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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