Ironically, queer theory’s basis has been threatened by its very popularity. Within a few years of its emergence on the critical field, it has entered the annals of academia as a regular mode of investigation, spawning conferences, books, journals, and courses of study across many disciplines. This proliferation has led some to wonder how such a “trendy” theoretical approach, so readily institutionalized by a historically understood center of power, can continue to define itself as marginal.
This question is further complicated by the potential application of queer theory to any number of intellectual disciplines. For example—greatly simplifying arguments that have taken shape throughout the twentieth century—the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that sexuality and desire are key to identity. A student of his school, Lacan, later argued that desire is encoded in language. In turn, Lacan’s ideas were modified by French literary theorist Roland Barthes and cultural philosophers Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. Finally, Foucault argued how language functions as the instrument of power. When these arguments are combined, as they are in queer discourse, any linguistic act becomes an instance of power that establishes identity and is subject to a queer analysis. Such a broad application threatens the unity and basis of queer theory by separating it from its original discourses of sex, gender, and desire. Queer theoreticians have recently found themselves in the position of establishing what queer theory is not, trying to prevent a total dissolution of the method that operates by unraveling possible identifications and power relationships.
Still, it remains within queer theory’s “nature” to be always teetering on the precipice of oblivion. From the biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah, completely destroyed because of an unidentified history of sexual perversion, to the twentieth century rhetoric surrounding HIV-AIDS, queer discourse has ever hovered at the edges of annihilation. Some argue that obliteration and obsolescence are part of its nature too because homosexual acts are not procreative, thereby separating desire from creation and continuity. While critics charge that the queer model of intellectual inquiry or artistic endeavor is therefore consumptive or even self-destructive, queer theory freely and playfully explores the pleasures found, for example, in both the making and the enjoying of an art object even when devoid of practical application.
The creation of the theory itself is predicated upon two works published in 1990: Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Sedgwick’s analysis challenges the methodology that separates homosexuality from heterosexuality as the exclusive basis for sexual orientation, locating in the origin of each term an epistemological shift that affects every domain of Western thought. While Sedgwick warns that by historicizing sexuality one runs the risk of eradicating alternate forms of reality, she explores the implications of the ability to precisely date the first use of the term “homosexual” and the fact that its opposite, “heterosexual,” while supposedly the normal tendency, was coined many years after and in opposition to the earlier, “deviant” word. Sedgwick argues that by distilling sexual identification to one element of the pleasure paradigm, and that by establishing an oppositional scheme by which to label it, the Western world has reinforced the power structure based squarely upon patriarchy and its ability to control reproduction. This power remains, even though its tenuous hold on society is continually exposed through discourses ranging from the faulty...