Reading group guest post: Jonathon Zapasnik

Posted on | February 10, 2012 | No Comments

In regards to the reading this week, I think both Annamarie and Sara bring two different, but also, two complimentary approaches to thinking about queer, sex, and identity politics. In this reflection, I have chosen to briefly summarise each of the readings (feel free to correct me, if I’m wrong). Then, after each, I will provide some of my own thoughts and questions for further discussion, if anyone is keen to pick them up.

In her article, “Feminism’s Queer Theory,” Annamarie alerts us to the complex and apprehensive relationship shared between feminist and queer theory. The title of the article itself acknowledges the understated historical roots of queer theory as a development “alongside” feminism, as opposed to its Other. Starting her analysis from the “category of woman” problem, she progresses to the “controversial analytic separation of gender and sexuality,” in order to illustrate the “possibilities of queer feminist thought.” For Annamarie, such possibility arises through the recognition that “feminist theory and queer theory together have a stake in both desiring and articulating the complexities of the traffic between gender and sexuality.”

I agree with Annamarie’s argument. The relationship between gender and sexuality cannot be easily divided into two camps; both feminist theory and queer theory bring something unique to the table of identity politics and political projects. Something I am particularly interested in here is the relationship between academia and activism, especially in regards to queer theory. There seems to be a consistent dialogue between the women’s movement and feminist theory, which doesn’t seem to exist between the gay movement and queer theory. Due to the rise of ‘what Lisa Duggan has styled ‘homonormativity,’ theory and activism has become increasingly disjointed. Does this account for the “death of queer theory”? If anything, what has queer theory achieved? Should we do away with it? Does its resistance to definition hinder its ability to provide an adequate model for political action? How can a dialogue be opened between theory and activism? Is there anything feminism can teach its queer theory?

Annamarie’s article, “Counterfeit Pleasures,” examines fake orgasms as the means of socio-political transformation, as read through Foucault’s invocation of bodies and pleasures. Annamarie recognises that “one’s relation to the disciplinary system of sexuality is articulated with regard to historically specific and bounded sites of contestation.” She argues that fake orgasms are a “counterdisplinary discourse”—something that “does not necessarily feel good.” Rather than embracing the sexual practice as a site of socio-political transformation, she suggests that the fake orgasm opens up an “alternate way of thinking about the political, offering not a future-directed strategy for political transformation but an eloquent figure for political engagement with the conditions of the present.” By doing this, Annamarie joins the recent movement in queer studies toward temporality studies; affective relations in history. She advocates for the “importance of alternative political imaginaries for queer conceptualisations of erotic practice and identity.”

I really enjoyed reading this article. I thought it provided an interesting framework for thinking about the use of sexual practices as a means of political transformation. Whilst I think I follow the basic premise of her argument, I don’t quite grasp what she means by “alternative political imaginaries” for sexual practices, such as the fake orgasm—if someone can clarify? On another note, having just read Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, I can see a definite relationship between Annamarie’s and Jack’s engagement with the “unintelligible, the unproductive and the wasteful.” So, my question here relates to how such engagements with failure in Jack’s case, or the “counterdisciplinary,” can influence the ways we think about intimacy, and more broadly, politics of sex and identity?

In her chapter, ‘Sexual Orientations,’ Ahmed inquires “what it means to ‘orient’ oneself sexually toward some others and not other others.” Her phenomenological approach to sexual orientation presents a challenge to the normalisation of bodies as heterosexual. Through a reading of Freud, she suggests that “compulsory heterosexuality” carries on the family line, both literally and figuratively. She says “For something to be required is, of course, ‘evidence’ that it is not necessary or inevitable. Heterosexuality is compulsory precisely insofar as it is not prescribed by nature.” Thus, ultimately, compulsory heterosexuality fails. Compulsion directs objects towards lines of orientation—it “puts some objects and not others in reach”. New lines of direction are established when bodies make contact with the object that is not supposed be there (i.e. the “contingent lesbian”). Pulled by desire, a body leaves the heterosexual matrix and as a result, the body requires a reorientation through assembling other objects that are otherwise not visible or reachable in the field of heterosexuality. For Sara, the potentiality in this rejection of compulsory heterosexuality resides in its refusal to turn to face the hail of interpellation: “Having not turned around, who knows where we might turn. Not turning also affects what we can do. The contingency of lesbian desire makes things happen.” Thus, the lesbian looks to other lines of orientation, which inevitably affects the things she might do.

A challenging read. Theoretically, there is a lot going on in terms that Sara draws on many competing frameworks, such as phenomenology, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. I think phenomenology offers an interesting twist to the mix. It’s interesting in the sense that post-structuralism developed, partially, in reaction to phenomenological thought. Are we witnessing the “come back” of phenomenology into critical theory? I think one of the criticisms often directed at feminist theory and queer theory is its inability to address the real-life experiences of its subjects. Can a return to phenomenology help resolve some of these inadequacies?

To conclude, I think Annamarie and Sara are asking us, their readers, to rethink the ways we have thought about the intersections between sex, sexuality, and identity. Whether they state it, or not, both of them acknowledge the complexity of these intersections, which I think is one of the great things about working in the field: its heterogeneous terrain. There’s never a dull moment.

Jonathon is about to start Honours in Gender, Sexuality, and Culture at the ANU.

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