Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chicago Pride Parade: Towards a Queer Materialism

"Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; 
action should be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate 
of many surprising sets of agencies"


Today is Chicago Pride Parade and as I see everyone with their various "queer costumes," most of which are designed primarily to inspire arousal through the exaggeration or exposure of their bodies. As I contemplate what it means to be queer today, I am struct by the ironic paradox queer theory and queer culture finds itself in.

On one side we have the misconception that "queer" as the performance of identity means that we are who we say we are: all are appearances and we are the puppeteers of our own little shows. Here we find the recent single by "Weird Al" Yankovic entitled "Perform this Way" is the exemplary model of queer identity. On the other side we have the misconception of Lady Gaga that we are "Born this Way": all is genetic and we are puppets in the theatre of God or Nature (you get to chose your transcendent signifier it seems). 


This is where the semi-nudity gets me. Do we "Perform this Way" or are we "Born" with it? The answer of course came to me from Bruno Latour's observation on Networks. We find ourselves wrapped in strings of chromosomes, hormones, clothes, costumes, schools, slums, social media, etc, etc, etc and we perform those identities materially as they perform us. That is only if we accept that we are stuck in a paradox of mediation, that "queerness" is far more material and thus "far more social" as Mr. Latour would say, than linguistics, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, or even pop/political culture wants to allow.

And thus, Queer popular culture has become very self involved. For decades since the "we're here, we're queer" got unfurled it seems as though LGBTQA-tcetera politics has been trying to sway public opinion by making its presence known, by carving out an "identity" with all the lovely stereotypes that come along and thus be recognized as a player in the game (in the midst of trying to change the game). And thus from the contradictions of having to become "normalized" in order to be set free to be not-normative. Queer culture has become very self involved out a hope of being recognized and as a result has lost sight of itself. It has allowed itself, like Weird Al's and Lady Gaga's songs exemplify, to become broken into polar positions.


This is one tangled knot, but as Mr. Latour would suggest, this may still be a useful arrangement for us: this whole "nature versus nurture" debate. Now this discourse has changed for the most part but with the positions remaining relatively the same. In academics we recently called this "essentialism versus performativity."

And the poles remain, if we insist on either, because both of these abstract qualities are present in the real experience of things. We do not chose (fully) who we are attracted to or what gender identity (if any) we feel most comfortable as at a given time. Nor can we say that either sexuality or gender exist (fully) without our performing them. Between this divide we find ourselves and our performative materiality/contingency.

I would not claim, in fact I would contest that for the most part queer theory scholars have not been oblivious to the "contingency" of our performances due to material/circumstantial forces. This is evident, for instance in Judith Butler's analysis of drag in Gender Trouble wherein she notes that sex is already gender and that she is as opposed to a social constructionist model of identity as she is to essentialism. Likewise we see this point clarified and explored further in her study of transgendered persons in Undoing Gender; whereof I borrowed the emphasis on "contingency."


What I would say is that as the "post-modern" identity machine, of which the ironic label of "queer" is an exemplary child, has concentrated primarily on the linguistic-psychological-performance facet of queerness it has despite its best efforts reinforced a nature v. social divide by bracketing off the prior as an unreachable "referent" or by turning it into a "Real" which we just shove "out there" and forget about or ridicule. Queer culture is very self involved, but cannot be surprised that it is it often narcissistic when its psychoanalytic ancestors have been so emphatic on the denial of mediation, holding such an emphatic skepticism of all "outside" the mind/language; while admitting the theoretical necessity of a material outside to allow the mind to function and a material/social world to tell US what words/ideas are and mean.

That is to say, we were on our way to doing that until more "thing" theorists and discourses started pocking their heads in and bringing the "Thing" back out of the abstract prison of capitalization. Those net-working, object, rhizomey people, such as Latour, noticed that as handy as dialectics can be to explain things in its own way, it leaves out or discounts so much "stuff" which is relevant to our discourse. "Pseudo-objects" or other such paradoxical hybrids open up a new opportunity for queer theorists to tackle issues of queer bodies and lives in a way which admits that we are performed as much as we perform our identities. Can we already begin to hear the echoes bouncing between Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's "becoming" and Butler's "performing", or between "molecularity" and "drag"?


Queer Materialism is already in the midst of things with us, and if we can let go more of our "modern" dualistic desire to keep things apart (especially from us humans) then we will discover much more to be proud of, much more we can become, many more voices which need performance space. Can we not hear the B in LGBTQA-ctetera speaking louder than before when we play more with the schizophrenic multiplicity of desire/sexuality? The T will be able to strut its stuff all the prouder when we admit that although the genetic machine is different than the hormone-clothing-surgical machine, they already work together for every person to continually create what we know as gender. The often forgotten P (for poly-amorous) can have more space to get around if we recognize the multiplicity of bodies, organic and inorganic, which the rave dance of sex involves (i.e. do we not treat our family and friends as erogenous zones for our enjoyment/probing of our mate's body when we first introduce them? Need all our sexual organs be attached to OUR bodies?). The list and the acronym goes on...

and so does the journey. I will refrain from the road metaphor for reasons I have stated, but I do think it is apt to say that queer theory and queer materialism can proudly say with JRR Tolkien "not all who wander are lost" and in exploring our own twisted maps anew we may continue to find them, and ourselves, perpetual wonders.


"So who is pulling the strings? 
Well, the puppets do 
in addition to their puppeteers”


Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Invocation: Who Are You?

"The question we pose to the Other is simple and unanswerable: 
‘who are you?’ 
The violent response is the one that does not ask, and does not seek to know.
It wants to sure up what it knows, 
to expunge what threatens it with not-knowing,
what forces it to reconsider the presuppositions of its world, 
their contingency, their malleability.
The nonviolent response lives with its unknowingness about the Other
in the face of the Other, since sustaining the bond that the question opens
is finally more valuable than knowing in advance what holds us in common, 
as if we already have all the resources we need to know 
what defines the human, what its future life might be"

Judith Butler
Undoing Gender