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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Scott Bravmann:
Review of Morton, ed., The Material Queer and Beemyn and Eliason, eds. Queer Studies

Scott Bravmann

Review of Donald Morton, ed., The Material Queer: A LesBiGay Cultural Studies Reader (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), xviii + 395 pp, $75.00 c/$25.00 ppb

Review of  Brett Beemyn and Mickey Eliason, eds., Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Anthology (New York: New York University Press, 1996), vii + 318 pp, $24.95 ppb

from CLGH Newsletter 11:2-3 (1997)

The publication of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993) promised a future publishing phenomenon that belied the very premise of its title: rather than a settled singular The to define the discipline, there could only be an unsettled "A" to mark the anticipated proliferation of anthologies, edited volumes, readers, and reprints of earlier texts that would both enlarge and contest this process of critical canon-formation. While at once confirming and enabling the possibility of critical writing on queer subjects, these collections have not always done as much queer critique as they might, but instead reiterate some of the most compelling, if often obscured, problems of contemporary culture. In this sense, both The Material Queer and Queer Studies set out to do something new in the "field," but each in ways that address rather different problems. These alternative, but not incompatible trajectories propose interesting, needed reconsiderations of prior institutionalizing practices in relation to the problematic subject(s) of queer studies.

In assembling The Material Queer (TMQ), Donald Morton has attempted "to rearticulate a field of understanding" and insists that his volume "is in fact urgently needed because the existing [queer studies] anthologies can in no way be affirmed" (p. xii). As Rosemary Hennesey has argued, the majority of participants in the race for queer theory have consistently neglected the place of material practices, relations of production, and global economic inequality in those much celebrated recent articulations of the queer ("Queer Visibility in Commodity Culture," Cultural Critique 29 [winter 1994-1995], pp. 31-76). The self-described transgressive space occupied by TMQ is intended to allow us to undertake such investigations. In contrast to the collective premise of earlier queer theory volumes, which focus on the autonomy -- even primacy -- of "(virtual) desire," TMQ aims to change the terms of the question and address "(actual) reality" (p. 1). The decisive break with these past projects that Morton wants to introduce is one that enables a move from textual to cultural studies. Whereas the former "is concerned with the mechanics of signification" (p. xv), a disruption of literal meaning, and ultimately renders knowledge unreliable, the latter "depends on the continuing possibilities of speaking `effectively' and `knowledgeably' about entities called `culture' and `society'" (p. xv). Rather than (thick) descriptions of cultures of difference in which the bourgeois subject encounters exotic others, which for him characterize the weak commitments of idealism, Morton advances the notion of a fundamental imperative realized by materialist analyses which offer (clear) explanations of the social structures that produce and maintain inequality.

Against the idealist tradition, which argues for the autonomy of desire and extends as far back as Plato, Morton situates his reader in a counter-tradition that "relat[es] desire to the [materiality of the] historical world" (p. 2) and has its own ancient roots, represented in TMQ by the fragments of Heraclitus. Though setting up a critical opposition between these two theoretical strands, Morton's strategy admits some areas of partial coincidence. Like the "ludic (post)modern" textualism he decries, historical materialism also recognizes that language distorts the reality it ostensibly represents, but it does so through the workings of ideology rather than the slippage of the signifier -- so that the problem lies in relations of power rather than in the structure of language itself. Furthermore, materialism understands the social construction of historical subjects through analysis of the mode of production rather than the mode of representation as it is understood in ludic postmodernism.

After a preface, two clarifying notes, and finally a lengthy introduction, the anthology sets out in earnest to highlight the idealist-materialist contestations over the queer in a way that is decidedly opposed to "let[ting] capitalism off the hook" as "today's reigning ludic queer theory" has done (p. 37). Arguing against the "voluntarist" notion of change effected by a new consciousness in such essays as Michael Warner's "Tongues Untied," Morton (re)iterates the need for the kinds of structural change sketched in Lance Selfa's "What's Wrong with `Identity Politics.'" In part, this resistance to identity politics has to do with a rejection of the ghettoization of queer knowledge and the insistence on the interconnectedness of historical phenomena. The work of this volume insists that "the contestation over sexualities [is] not so much a struggle between queer (desire) and straight (desire) as [it is] one between desire and need, socialism and capitalism, the individual and the collective, and so on" (p. 37). Throughout, Morton seeks to make global connections -- such as why queer theory arose at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- and also to recenter politics -- in part by returning to the political visions of (gay) liberation.

By bringing together and resituating such diverse theorists as Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Derrida, Monique Wittig, David Horowitz, and Teresa L. Ebert, among many others, this anthology makes an important contribution to rethinking the material queer. Its intervention is timely and necessary, but there are also some problems in it that are more than minor quirks. Worried that "all `queer' politics could ever be is the subversion of the social order and not commitment to any particular program of social change" (p. 203), Morton wants to hold onto certainty, even a privileged form of knowing, in order "to set (however provisionally) a knowledge that could serve as the basis for political praxis" (p. 122). In so doing, however, he never entertains doubts about materialism's ability to know and, in simply saying it must be wrong, never seriously considers the epistemological challenge: what if ludic (post)modern textualism is right? If the structure of language does subvert the possibility of certainty, how then must we set about working for social justice and changing ownership of the means of production? Nor is Morton's own account of marxism as honest as it might be. In the volume's final contribution, "Capitalism and Homophobia: Marxism and the Struggle for Gay/Lesbian Rights," the 1917 Collective states, "Marxists oppose all sorts of capitalist oppression ... [including] the persecution of both male and female homosexuals and others who are oppressed on the basis of sexually related behavior" (p. 369). Without comment, Morton lets stand as if it were true this idealist conception of marxism whose definition falls outside the material practices of historical reality and never accounts for the often blistering homophobia among marxist scholars, organizers, and cultural workers. Reminding us of the skirmishes among partisans with various left convictions, Morton mocks the (unorthodox) socialist vision of Socialist Review, a left journal with one of the longest non-parasitic commitments to queer scholarship and activism.

In addition to the necessary recentering of the material world and class relations, we learn some curious (homophobic?) things from materialist analysis as well. On the one hand, V. N. Vološinov tells us in an ahistorical statement that "[a]ll periods of social decline and disintegration are characterized by overestimation of the sexual in life and in ideology" (p. 98), with the current implication that we should help reduce that overestimation by knowing when to stay (with the full impact of bourgeois propriety) in the material closet. On the other hand, we learn from the 1917 Collective, writing in 1995 (!), that "[t]he question of the oppression of homosexual men and women is a vital one for Marxists to take up, but it is not a strategic one for socialist revolution -- unlike, for example, the woman question (p. 379). Even if we were firmly convinced that sexism, women's movements, feminist theories, and gender-based analyses were no longer dismissively called "the woman question," we find out that social gender and its (material) consequences are fully distinct from compulsory heterosexuality, homophobia, and other forms of sexual regulation.

Ultimately, despite its stated view to the future, TMQ does a much better -- and necessary -- job of looking backward to excavate the tradition of materialist theorizing of desire and challenging the idealist tradition than it does of looking forward to enable critical reconsiderations of the very structures (complex, overlapping, contradictory) that necessitated the new left break from universal, class-based marxist analysis in the first place. In his rush to condemn ludic postmodernism, Morton overlooks the (attendant?) postmodern cultural politics that have begun to reframe the terms of struggle, highlighting specific differences, fractured subjectivities, and the local, largely, but not only, as a way of resisting the imperialist impulses of uniform materialist analysis.

Also recognizing the shortcomings of a much wider range of prior publications, the editors of Queer Studies (QS) "have sought to fill some of [the various distinct] gaps within existing queer texts" (p. 2): their (near) inaccessibility to undergraduate and non-academic readers, their focus on heterosexual audiences or people who are just coming out, their narrow disciplinary allegiances, and their inattention to the differently queer subjectivities of bisexuals and transsexuals. Organized into two (overlapping) sections on identity and queer theory, this volume presents sixteen papers from the 1994 InQuery/InTheory/InDeed Conference, which were selected because they "dealt with areas that have often been excluded, marginalized, or ignored by queer studies in the past: race, gender, transgender, bisexuality, and s/m" (pp. 2-3). Unlike TMQ, which sets out to resituate a large number of key texts in an entire field of understanding and therefore requires substantial (re)contextualizing work, QS's essays themselves carry much more of the anthology's burden of (re)making the field. The new research showcased in QS not only provokes reevaluation of existing queer scholarly practices but it also complicates the rigid, even narrow, notions of materialism and desire that inform TMQ's critique.

Motivated by "the very real persecution" that "[t]he butch who refuses to pass as non-butch" faces (p. 27), Sherrie Inness and Michelle E. Lloyd ask, "What does masculinity mean on a female body?" (p. 14). Arguing that the butch is inexplicable within dominant versions of reality, they seek to explicate deeply important questions about materiality as it is inscribed in complex, variegated, specific, but not autonomous cultural practices of signification, and insist that the body is not just a material presence in the world but also, quoting Jacqueline N. Zita, "a thing that carries its own historical gravity" (p. 19). Recognizing that desire is not a privilege as stated (repeatedly) in TMQ, Patricia L. Duncan's essay proposes a productive understanding of s/m "as a site of conflict," "a political act" whose practice "provides a space for resolving conflict and for reconceptualizing notions of social difference" (pp. 87-88). This position is differently inflected in Warren J. Blumenfeld's discussion of historical parallels in the scapegoating of Jews and queers, including attempts by the Right to exploit post-Reaganomics uncertainties by targeting gays and lesbians as a privileged elite.

Queer questions of history run throughout QS. Vernon Rosario's "Trans (Homo) Sexuality?" is centrally concerned with how transsexual identities complicate gender and sexuality and asks whether the early twentieth-century "invert" should be understood as transsexual rather than as "the genealogical ancestor of the modern homosexual" (p. 40). Amanda Udis-Kessler maps the queer historical shift in how bisexuality is conceived: "from an implicit universal bisexual potential to an explicit bisexual minority group" (p. 52). Race matters are provocatively explored in several essays that address the subjectivities of people of color (JeeYeun Lee, Gregory Conerly), name whiteness as a visible difference linked to social power (Tracy D. Morgan), and identify the structural interdependence and mutual productivity of discourses on racial and sexual pathology (Siobhan Somerville). Using a rational choice model, M. V. Lee Badgett assesses the material impact of coming out at work. Essays by Ki Namaste, Amber Ault, and Christopher James critique queer practices that have rejected bisexuals and transsexuals, pointing out contradictions, misreadings, and appropriations in queer theory.

Ruth Goldman's essay looks at how particular norms operate in "queer theory," including the privileges (for some) attached to the term and the tendency to separate activism from academics. Yet in criticizing this latter practice among (certain) queer theorists, she reiterates the impossible chronology Teresa de Lauretis used to distinguish the "queer" of her theory from that of queer activists: in a footnote to the introduction to the "queer theory" issue of differences (1991), which Goldman quotes, de Lauretis writes, "My `queer' had no relation to the Queer Nation group of whose existence I was ignorant at the time" (p. 171). The formation of Queer Nation, however, post-dated the "Queer Theory" conference (1990) from which that volume derived by approximately two months, thus explaining why de Lauretis was unaware of the group's existence during the planning stages of her conference. Whatever else it might bring to light, a careful critique would recognize that queer theory's genealogy does not admit an activist-academic distinction simply because a foundational text got it wrong.

While the differences between these two volumes' projects are substantial, they also share in a larger critique of queer scholarly practice. The anxious discontent with the current institutionally privileged incarnations of queer studies that they speak against gives them significance beyond their specific contents. Helping to open debate on the possibilities of radically queer studies, their meta projects on how queer scholars discipline and publish require their own sorts of (related) critical attention. Neither books' (implied) optimism, however, poses the question of queer studies' future in the increasingly long-term no-growth approach to the social sciences and humanities in the academy. Nonetheless, that is a question we should be asking.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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