Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Queer Theory Now and the Pleasure of Movement

Tyler Bradway, E. L. McCallum

Courtesy of Ted Eytan | Flickr

Courtesy of Ted Eytan | Flickr

Queer theory emerged in the midst of crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s: as the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged, scholars and activists sought to disrupt the stigmatization and erasure of LGBTQ lives in the Reagan/Thatcher era. In centering sexuality within cultural analysis, queer theory built on foundations established by the feminist and gay liberation movements, both of which were gaining institutional footholds through the founding of Women’s Studies and later Lesbian and Gay Studies programs in many major universities.

In our contemporary moment, and particularly under the current administration, a similar turning point is at hand, and the hard-won gains of LGBTQ+ activism and scholarship are increasingly under threat. Some of the most visible examples include the Trump administration’s denial of visas to same-sex partners of diplomats; its attempt to ban transgender people from the military; its recent effort to redefine sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals one is born with;” and its ongoing detention, separation, and deportation of migrant families, many of whom are LGBTQ and escaping persecution. Beyond the presidential level, there are ongoing efforts by rightwing politicians and advocacy groups to rescind civil rights for sexual and gender minorities through the courts and state legislatures. Globally, gender and sexuality studies are also under attack, targeted by right-wing governments for opposing traditionally patriarchal, heteronormative, and white supremacist structures of power.

Notably, queer theory refuses plots that assume heteronormative logics of development, such as the progression from child to adult, immature to mature, single to monogamously coupled, and so on.

Concurrently, another kind of discourse of crisis has emerged on the left, as some senior scholars and veteran activists bemoan recent activism for what they see as a conservative penchant for institutional rules and an assimilation to heteronormative structures of identity and affiliation. A generational divide seems to be breaking out on the left wing of queer politics, as the old guard worries its cherished idioms, archives, pleasures, identifications, and desires are being rejected by the new guard, and vice versa. Where some fear a turn away from queer’s anti-institutional resistance, others critique the longstanding exclusions that queer has tacitly wrought for certain identities, particularly for people of color, trans people, and people with disabilities. Likewise, while some see queer as irreducibly anti-institutional, others call for institutional and cultural practices that preserve and foster queer’s radical vibrancy. We are wary that the contestations, which are not new, risk being lost in a fog of outrage.

How are we to read queer theory’s crisis in relation to the violence and catastrophe of the contemporary moment? Are we witnessing a retrenchment or a flourishing—a loss of queer’s radicalism or a breaking open of new modes of queerness as yet unthought?

Notably, queer theory refuses plots that assume heteronormative logics of development, such as the progression from child to adult, immature to mature, single to monogamously coupled, and so on. Indeed, it sees time itself as a queer form, like Freud’s unconscious, flowing in loops and eddies, creating unpredictable resonances, rhymes, and refrains. This is why our introduction to After Queer Studies: Literature, Theory, and Sexuality in the 21st Century picks up on Kathryn Bond Stockton’s description of queer theory as “thinking sideways.” Thinking sideways means thinking aslant of the social norms that script our bodies, desires, and identities. Yet it also means thinking across spaces, times, and histories that are traditionally cordoned off from one another. Our collection makes the case for the ongoing vitality of queer theory’s lateral possibilities for thinking and action, refusing triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about the success or demise of radical sexual politics.

To be sure, we think the dichotomy between retrenchment and flourishing remains all too familiarly straight. But that doesn’t mean we discount the very real tensions emerging among different “generations”—or rather, eddies—of queer scholarship, activism, and thought. The stakes are high. Yet we hope our collection complicates and expands the frames through which we might think about these differences across time. In this, we take inspiration from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s famous description of queer as a “continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant.” Any movement that has been around long enough eventually confronts the problem known as “generations.” A movement is, by definition, in movement. It is dynamic and changing and will not be what it was when it started. As one grows older—or at least as one’s involvement with social justice advocacy increases through education—one needs to be open to the fact that movements change, that where one thinks a movement is headed is not necessarily where it will go. As new people come on board, as situations change, new divides and new possibilities emerge. Every movement is always also a remix.

Undoubtedly, the deconstructive and anti-institutional ethos of early queer theory remains vital and powerful. Yet queer theory must also remain open to the queerness of movement itself, to finding itself remixed, contested, decentered, and newly connected to other, often marginalized modes of knowledge. Movement is not a threat. It’s an invitation to learning and affirming new ways of being and doing queer, opening up ways of being curious about what comes After Queer Studies.

After Queer Studies Edited by Tyler Bradway , E. L. McCallum

After Queer Studies Edited by Tyler Bradway , E. L. McCallum

About The Authors

Tyler Bradway

Tyler Bradway is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Cortland and author of Queer Experimental Literature: The Affective Politics of Bad Reading (2017). He is the editor of 'Liv...

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E. L. McCallum

E. L. McCallum is Professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University, and author of Unmaking The Making of Americans: Toward an Aesthetic Ontology (2018) and Objec...

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