Monday, January 02, 2012

theory's end


Hearing the news that Duke University has decided to end its Series Q makes me feel the same way I do when I read the obituary of someone really old: "Helen Frankenthaler? I didn't know she was still alive!" For the past few years, Queer Theory has mostly been living out its retirement in relative obscurity, despite Michael Warner's insistence, in his thoughtful essay in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, that Queer Theory still has questions to answer and work to do (it does). The days of queer studies conferences and special panels are mostly over, teaching queer theory in the undergraduate classroom can feel more like a historical exercise than a cutting-edge subcultural practice, and doing queer work has remained risky for LGBTQ PhD students and Assistant Professors in the face of university cutbacks. All of this is unfortunate, because queer theory, especially as it relates to transgender issues, still has lots of political, social, and legal relevance. Still, when I read about Series Q ending, my first thought was, "I didn't know it was still alive!"

Series Q is ending, appropriately, with work by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who also founded the series in 1992. It was a time when queer nerds were cool. The 1993 Rutgers Queer Studies Conference Warner mentions in his Chronicle article was held at my PhD institution, and almost everybody who was anybody in the work of queer was there--Joan Nestle, Amber Hollibaugh, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Warner himself. So much star power was distracting; every time the door opened during a presentation, every head in the room snapped around. The spectacle undid some attendees. One famously puppyish Rutgers English undergrad showed up late to Warner's talk in her most theatrical stilettos, and as every head in the packed room turned to see who had come in, she slipped while trying to negotiate the aisle stairs. Horror dawned on her face as she went down, down, arms flailing, the the general mirth of the room and the grad students who told and retold the episode in the weeks and months that followed. Most of us swore we saw Warner himself stifle a laugh.

We queer grad students were swept up in it, reading Foucault and dreaming our big career dreams.

Queer Studies then was viciously cliquish as well as glamorous. Different cohorts traveled in packs to the cocktail parties and stood in the middle of rooms, carefully accessorized in leather, pretending not to notice all of us staring longingly at them. The same names appeared over and over on the conference announcements as people picked their friends to give talks and contribute to collections. We lowly ones in school or on the job market stood on the fringes, hungry for intellectual conversation, consoling ourselves with the certainty of our own soon-to-be-fame.

These were the heady days of Series Q. Not long after, the publishing market for literary studies collapsed, and soon, queer studies books began to slow as well. In the race to capitalize on the queer academic market, publishers (cough Routledge cough) churned out a lot of crappy books with "Queer" splashed across the cover. Once the brand was cheapened, demand fell.
Series Q chugged on, producing quality work that was culturally and intellectually diverse.

But queer is always in the past. Radclyffe Hall's lesbian protagonists of the 1920s dreamed they were Neanderthals and primitive warriors. Queer Theory now seems historic, inspired by the politics of the late sixties and the AIDS crisis and culture wars of twenty years ago. Warner suggests that reifying Queer Theory in this way--as historic-- affords "normative" gays interested in marriage equality and military/institutional inclusion the illusion that they have moved beyond the shameful queer sexual politics of their youth. But I think it is important to remember that because queer always manifests culturally through fashion, spectacle, and art in particular historical/cultural moments, queer is also always going to feel like a fashion or trend that escapes the control of the people who feel as if they are engendering it, resulting in a dysphoric relationship between queers being queerly sexual and the ways they get to recognize themselves via their magnification and distortion in popular culture. In my youth I was queer and hip; I wore the clothes and walked the walk and fucked people (I felt) in innovative and exciting ways, and when I got older, I felt no longer fashionable. This feeling, this dysphoria, may not be the product of gay shame so much as the recognition of how our identities, sexual practices, and--let's face it--careers have been determined by fashion trends that help us be legible to each other (not to mention youth cultures we outgrow). We are older now, and the signifying systems through which we came to know ourselves have shifted.

Like our political aims, and theory trends in general. Like the academic publishing industry.

Series Q may be one mode scholars had of understanding and acting on queerness whose time has passed, not because of lack of intellectual interest on the part of contributors and readers out there, but because of the material realities of academia these days, which have come to constitute a new reality for scholarship. Wages have been frozen, grad students aren't getting jobs, and tenure-track lines are being eliminated and replaced by instructorships with minimal contractual obligation, all of which means people can't buy expensive scholarly books. Libraries are feeling the squeeze as budget cuts curtail the books they can acquire.

All of this is to say that the welcoming environment and fiscal largesse of the academy that enabled the flourishing of Queer Studies in the 1990s and ots has disappeared, forcing queerness to go elsewhere to express itself and its art. This might not be a bad thing; certainly choosing activism over the "merely being gay" effect of the Queer Studies grad student will have a greater impact on communities, forcing queer students who want to make a world to think beyond the classroom model.

It also suggests that Queer will rise again, like King Arthur, when the world most needs it. In the wake of vicious recessions and right-wing attacks on diversity, as well as failure to mentor the sons and daughters of queer theory to tenured positions, Queer Studies falls, only to be carried off the field by Marxism after all, who takes him to the Ladies of Feminism, waiting in boats. They whisk Queer Studies to Avalon, located in Australia, which has a law school and can really use him. He will return when the world needs him most, but until then, he'll make a halfway decent salary trying to perk up a moribund curriculum.

So goodbye for now, Series Q. You never would have published me or my friends, but knowing you were out there made us just a little queerer as we waved our chalk around every day. We queers may not be fashionable right now, but we are fighting the good fight everywhere, teaching history, getting married, raising children, and having threesomes if possible. So we beat on, boats against the curriculum, borne back ceaselessly into the past.