T. Kirk – What’s That Smell? – Judith Halberstam

“What’s That Smell?: Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives” – Halberstam

On a personal note:  After introducing her thesis for this particular essay, Halberstam offers her readers a tightly woven, but rich anecdote of her own subcultural experience as an adolescent in 1970s England. She relays how she “plunged into punk rock music, clothing, and rebellion precisely because it gave me a language with which to reject not only the high-cultural texts in the classroom, but also the homophobia, gender normativity, and sexism outside it,” and finds out through a failed “two-week” experiment as a singer in “a punk band called Penny Black” that “even punk divas scream in key, and my rebel yells were not mellifluous enough  to launch my punk singing career” (155). Well, now we know that there is always a home for failed punk artists in the ever-mutating, ever-expansive field of queer theory. It’s a lesson for the kids out there 🙂

On a summative note:  In chapter seven of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, she clearly situates and identifies her central assertion for the book and her specific argument in this chapter, respectively:

  • Halberstam’s central assertion for the book is, in her own words, “that queer temporality disrupts the normative narratives of time that form the base of nearly every definition of the human in almost all our modes of understanding, from the professions of psychoanalysis and medicine, to socioeconomic and demographic studies on which every sort of state policy is based, to our understanding of the affective and the aesthetic. (152)
  • On the next page, Halberstam identifies the central argument located in chapter seven, one that she re-asserts in the conclusion of her introduction: “In the descriptions of subcultural life in this chapter, I explore the stretched-out adolescences of queer culture makers that disrupt conventional accounts of subculture, youth culture, adulthood, and maturity” (153). From here, Halberstam introduces her reader to the constellation of her “liminal subjects,” and moves methodically to her conclusion, where she states emphatically that this particular critical inquiry will “on the one hand, expand the definition of subculture beyond its most banal significations of youth in crisis and, on the other hand, challenge our notion of adulthood as reproductive maturity” (162) [italics mine].

Conclusion of the Introduction:

According to Halberstam, “we need to alter our understandings of subcultures in several important ways in order to address the specificities of queer subcultures and queer subcultural sites.” They are as follows:

  • First, we need to rethink the relation  between theorist and subcultural participant, recognizing that for many queers, the boundary between theorist and cultural producer might be slight or at least permeable.
  • Second, most subcultural theories are created to describe and account for male heterosexual adolescent activity, and they are adjusted only when female heterosexual adolescent activity comes into focus. New queer subcultural theory will have to account for nonheterosexual, nonexclusively make, nonwhite, and nonadolescent subcultural production in all its specificity.
  • Third, we need to theorize the concept of the archive, and consider new models of queer memory and queer history capable of recording and tracing subterranean scenes, fly-by-night clubs, and fleeting trends; we need, Jose Munoz’s words, “an archive of the ephemeral.”
  • Finally, queer subcultures offer us an opportunity to redefine the binary of adolescence and adulthood that structures so many inquiries into subcultures. Precisely because many queers refuse and resist the heteronormative imperative of home and family, the also prolong the periods of their life devoted to subcultural participation. (161-162)

Halberstam then outlines each of these four features of queer subcultural production in relation to specific lesbian subcultures:

  • “Hot Topic”:  The Death of the Expert:  First, then, let us consider the relations between subcultural producers and queer cultural theorists: Queer subcultures encourage blurred boundaries between archivists and producers, which is not to say that this is the only subcultural space within which the theorist and the cultural worker may be the same people. (162)
  • Wildcat Women:  Lesbian Punk and Slam Poetry:  Second, queer subcultural theory should begin with those communities that never seem to surface in the commentaries on subcultures in general: namely, lesbian subcultures and subcultures of color. . . . Recording the presence of lesbian subcultures can make a huge difference to the kinds of subcultural histories that get written—whether it is a history of drag that only focuses on gay men, a history of punk that only looks at white boys, or a history of girl cultures that only concentrates on heterosexual girls. (165)
  • Shooting Stars:  Queer Archives:  Third, the nature of queer subcultural activity requires a nuanced theory of archives and archiving. . . . Ideally, an archive of queer subcultures would merge ethnographic interviews with performers and fans with research in the multiple archives that already exist online and other unofficial sites. (169)
  • “I Want It That Way”:  A Time for Queers:  Fourth, queer subcultures afford us a perfect opportunity to depart from a normative model of youth cultures  as stages of the way to adulthood; this allows us to map out different forms of adulthood, or the refusal of adulthood and new modes of deliberate deviance. . . . Queers participate in subcultures for far longer than their heterosexual counterparts . . . . For queers, the separation between youth and adulthood quite simply does not hold, and queer adolescence can extend far beyond one’s twenties. (174)

Being that I’m well beyond my suggested boundaries of length, allow me to side-step that convention briefly and conclude by saying that from here, Halberstam continues to make her case for how and why “queers extend participation in subcultural activity long beyond their ‘youth'” (177) by introducing her reader to “the space of the alternative” (178) and those who inhabit such geographies of “time” to locate that liminal space in which exist, in Samuel Delany’s langauge,”queer subterranean worlds as ‘a complex of interlocking systems and subsystems'” that, Halberstam argues, need to be protected as geographies that function as “counterpublics for subcultural uses” (186),

2 thoughts on “T. Kirk – What’s That Smell? – Judith Halberstam

  1. alexislothian

    The citation of Delany at the end of your thorough summary makes me wonder whether we can identify his work in Times Square Blue as the kind of subcultural archiving Halberstam is advocating. What are the continuities and differences between these two works?

  2. Lauren Shoemaker

    With such a lengthy article, the bullet points were a great organizational move! You have a great summary!


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