Queer Theory Analysis

Sex and gender and the beginnings of queer theory

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Contributing to queer theory’s emergence is the differentiation between sex and gender made by feminist thinkers, including Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. Complications to those precepts have been raised by feminist literary and cultural critics such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler. Their arguments are predicated upon premises generally current among postmodernists and specifically articulated by French psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. The fact that queer theory appeared at a historical point in response to specific philosophers suggests to some that it may be culturally bound and might become irrelevant, but its immediate, broad application to a variety of disciplines argues for its continuation as a viable and relevant method of textual analysis.

Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” summarizes for many early feminists the distinction between the biological factors commonly used to identify a person’s sex and the social pressures that form a person’s gender. While biological sex was then commonly held to be easily categorized and understood, an assumption that would soon be challenged, social constructions were immediately recognized as shifting, variable, and indeterminate. Feminists have since engaged in systematic explorations of the social pressures to which women are subjected, perhaps in complicity with the patriarchy, and which men and women alike, either consciously or...

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Pushing the boundaries of normal versus queer

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Queer theory has generally refused both the constructivist and the essentialist approach as well as the binary logic that governs sexual identification and orientation, preferring to expose the internal logic of each system by locating—often by pushing against it—a boundary between the normal and the deviant, exploring the nature and consequence of deviance and the ways the normal uses the deviant to reinforce its own normality. In these arguments, queer theorists follow poststructuralists, who reject the basis and terms of the Western systems of logic and rational argumentation institutionalized by the dialectic discourses of Plato, who inscribed the Socratic dialogues.

At its foundation, this challenge is brought to language itself, most radically by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and philosopher Jacques Derrida. Saussure argues that there is no natural connection between a word, which he calls a signifier, and its definition, which he calls the signified. Derrida notes that because the relationship between a word and its definition can only be arbitrary, that relationship is not fixed or stable but subject to what he terms slippage, the process of defining a word by using other words, which in turn have to be defined. So the meaning of an idea is never fixed; it is always in a state of flux that depends on the chain of terms used to elaborate it. Queer theorists apply similar logic to sexual identity, gender roles, and desire, arguing that each...

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Normalizing queer theory

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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...

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Queer theory’s detractors and critics

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The methodology of queer theory questions what people believe they know about sex, identity, and desire to expose and challenge unspoken assumptions. Because queer theory refuses the standards adopted by the text and then posits alternatives, often only to undermine them, it has been accused of being petty and querulous, and even illogical. Queer theory both ignores and embraces these accusations in its quest to escape the rules governing philosophical inquiry in the West. Likewise, queer theory has been criticized for its focus on the freakish, abnormal, and fetishist, and for proceeding in a tone alternatively described as campy, hysterical, or “screaming.” When they choose to respond, queer theoreticians argue that only by exploring life at the margins can they hope to define the boundaries that uphold power, and that by calling attention to the performative features of argument, they hope to undermine the perhaps more subtle but no more legitimate rhetorical strategies employed by those who claim to be reasonable, rational, and objective.

Finally, in response to charges that queer theory coins terms illogically or unnecessarily, or that it employs complex or even faulty grammatical structures, queer theorists argue that nouns or adjectives used to specify genders or sexual orientations cannot be defined because they refer to such a complex network of objects and experiences. Even the very syntax of language upholds the binary logic of power structures that govern gender and desire, and thus must be defied by those not privileged to speak within or against the system.

Despite the many criticisms that queer theory employs an unnecessary and even exclusionary elitism predicated upon its erudite treatment of texts, that it is overly playful in its handling of serious arguments, and that its intentionally loose treatment of grammar make it unreadable, inapplicable, or irrelevant, queer theory remains a vibrant and productive area of interdisciplinary inquiry. It remains possible that scientific discoveries about sexuality and gender may alter understandings of identity so that its logic becomes utterly nonsensical. Likewise, historical developments may shift the mechanisms of power away from sex and gender. It seems more likely though that the kinds of radical uncertainty, relentless questioning, and rejection of standards performed by queer theory will become the only conceivable model of intellectual inquiry, normalizing queer theory to the point that it too will have to be challenged from an entirely new model.


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Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” PMLA 110, no. 3 (May, 1995): 343-349. An attempt to define queer theory by establishing what it does not do, including the ways it is not useful or practical, while defending that inutility as key to its function.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2008. A foundational text in queer theory that challenges the definitions of “sexuality,” “sex,” and “gender,” locating all three concepts in what Butler describes as performance.


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