Sunday, January 12, 2014

Queer in theory

I recently finished reviewing Orgasmology by Annamarie Jagose. For the full skinny, you'll have to subscribe to the International Social Science Review by Pi Gammu Mu, which is, unfortunately, behind a pay wall. Political discussion about academic freedom aside, I enjoy reviewing books since it makes me read closely and I have a good relationship with the editor.

This was my first intensive study of a book based on queer theory. Although much of my work focuses on sex and is informed by it, I haven't read a lot of books based on queer theory as the primary methodology. It seems a bit antithetical to the type of anthropology I practice. I enjoy a bit of postmodernism every now and then and rely heavily on constructivism, but I cannot reduce everything (film, speech, clothes) to texts. I occasionally have an uneasy relationship to material culture but I feel to ignore it or at least interpret it as rhetoric can lead to a social science that explicates but does not make meaningful change.

Let me be clear, I want to use anthropology to create a more just world. Purported objectivity be damned. I don't always have the right answer and I'm very conscious of neoliberal and imperialist tendencies even in myself, but I feel that the discipline has an obligation to increase the respect for human dignity for all people, including things like ensuring shelter, water, food, and freedom from violence. <puts away soap box>

This brings me back to queer theory. I enjoy thinking slantwise, sidling up to dogma and staring at it cross-eyed until it comes into a different focus. Things are seldom what they seem and queer theory is a powerful tool to question big concepts, especially heteronormativity. It just doesn't seem to be enough for me, somehow.

Part of the reason I went into anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology, was the possibility for dialogue. Even archaeology, as much as I respect my friends and colleagues toiling away in the field, speaks for the dead. I appreciate a good argument with the people I work with, even if it is usually uncomfortable and occasionally mortifying. I don't feel like I'm stealing their voice although I am reporting on our interactions from my perspective.

At the end of the day, it's queer theory's reliance on interpretation of art and text that does not resonate with me. The thing about art is that the artist's original intention only goes so far. It is up to the viewer/reader/listener to add her or his experience to complete the experience. Queer theory (in what little I've experienced) complicates the picture, challenging people to new interpretations, whether it be film or historical documents.

Perhaps I have to let it go - queer theory is not anthropology nor does it suggest that it should be. I recently met Lynne Huffer, a scholar who works on the intersections of feminisms and queer theory especially regarding ethics. I just received her latest book, Are the Lips a Grave? Queer Feminist Reflections on the Ethics of Sexin the mail and look forward to her perspective on sex, ethics, and Foucault, especially given my new obsession with morality. We were introduced during a lunch hosted by the Women's Center on campus. She spoke forthrightly about some of the politics of developing and sustaining women's centers and LGBTQ centers. When I'm privy to such conversations, I find them enlightening and they make me question my desire to remain in the academy.

She discussed Foucault (my not-so-secret nerd crush) and the implications of his theories for current day feminism and queer theory. I remained quiet for most of the lunch since this isn't my area of expertise but finally I couldn't help myself. I think I asked about the practical applications of public sex as opposed to the theoretical possibilities for political action around such. I then had to explain (briefly, I've gotten much better at briefly) my work. She seemed interested in the lived experiences of kinky people who are testing out some of Foucault's ideas (more or less successfully and with or without intention).

I feel like queer theory has the potential to add to my work, to give me insight into some of the structures I see play out between the het scene and the queer scene. I have certainly cited scholars who are themselves queer or at least part of the LGBTQ community. Even though I identify as queer, I am only a queer theorist in the sense of an adjective modifying my sexuality appended to my predisposition to theorize rather than a practitioner of queer theory. I just get frustrated writing that stops with literary analysis. Even taking into account popular culture, it is often the elite of a culture that shapes the media, writes the history, performs the art.

If anyone can recommend some queer theorists who go beyond this, I'd love to hear about it. Even better, if you would like to discuss queer theory with me so that I can gain a better understanding, I'm always up for a chat. For now, however, I will crack open Huffer's book and see where ethics takes me.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Useful information for the rhetoric wars

Nothing profound this week (so far) but I wanted to share a link that I've found useful in my work:

Melissa Gira Grant does a lovely job rounding up stories and blogs about sex workers from a sex-worker-centric viewpoint. It's broken up into topics, for those of you teaching classes. I'm particularly fond of the labor section.

Thanks, B, for the heads up.