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Critical Culture Essay Queer Theory

Journal Article

Review: All about Eve? Queer Theory and History

Reviewed Works: Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea by Paul Baker, Jo Stanley; Regarding Sedgwick. Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory by Stephen Barber, David Clark; Nameless Offences. Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century by H. G. Cocks; Beyond Shame. Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality by Patrick Moore; A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory by Nikki Sullivan

Review by: Sean Brady

Journal of Contemporary History

Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 185-195

Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036377

Page Count: 11

Queer Theory was, and remains, first and foremost a scholarly enterprise, although its adherents often explore the relationship between theory and practice by acknowledging the power relations inherent in the production of knowledge. Engaging with the works of queer theorists typically requires some knowledge of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the work of Michel Foucault, and possibly a passing familiarity with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, not to mention Jürgen Habermas, among other important modern and postmodern critical thinkers. One central debate within queer theory revolves around the very definition of the term “queer” and focuses upon its theoretical import and potential political usefulness. While political activism energized the notion of queerness as a diverse category comprising sexual dissidents who embrace the subversion of heterosexual normativity (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s minoritizing view), for many theorists, queerness provides an opportunity for deconstructing identity norms altogether (a position more akin to the universalizing view of Sedgwick 2008). For Butler 1990, Butler 1993, Bersani 2009, Halperin 1997, and Halperin and Traub 2009, for example, “queer” signifies not an identity around which to organize an oppositional politics but a refusal of coherent identities as defined under (neo)liberalism and practiced through identity politics. Queer theorizing, for many, aims at disrupting and politicizing all presumed relations between and among sex, gender, bodies, sexuality, and desire.

  • Bersani, Leo. Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    The titular essay in this collection of Bersani’s work is a seminal tract within Queer Theory. In “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Bersani diagnoses the profound heterosexual anxiety embedded in 1980s representations of gay sex as infection and gay subjects as killers. He seeks to redefine sex as a practice that shatters the experience of the self rather than reinforcing it.

  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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    One of the most important early works of Queer Theory, Butler’s book proposes that gender is something that people do, not something that they are. From this standpoint, gender can productively be detached from the biological distinction between the sexes. Furthermore, enacting gender is a performative process: invoking gender through acts, behavior, and style produces gender discursively.

  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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    Butler extends her discussion of gender performativity by challenging the notion that the body (and, specifically, anatomical sex) functions as a material limit constraining performances of gender and race. Instead, she contends, the body is discursively produced as well.

  • Fuss, Diana, ed. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991.

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    Seminal collection of essays demonstrating queer theoretical approaches to popular culture, literature, film, and history. Many of the essays became Queer Theory classics, including those by D. A. Miller, Patricia White, and Richard Meyer.

  • Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    This controversial book seeks to secure Foucault’s central place in queer politics. Halperin explores the reasons why gay activists have been inspired by Foucault’s intellectual work and personal history. Some Foucault scholars denounce the work, arguing that Foucault would have rejected the use of his ideas for political organizing.

  • Halperin, David, and Valerie Traub, eds. Gay Shame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    Turning gay pride on its end, this essay collection, which originated with a conference at the University of Michigan, seeks to reclaim emotion, embarrassment, and dissidence as central elements of queer practice.

  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    In this seminal work of queer studies, Sedgwick analyzes and deconstructs the heterosexual/homosexual binary, exposing its contradictions through examinations of legal discourse and literature. Emphasizing the performative nature of speech acts—that is, the way language brings ideologies and practices into being—the author argues that hetero- and homosexualities are mutually constructed entities that subtend a homophobic culture. Originally published in 1990.

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