What’s That Smell? Halberstam (Shoemaker)

In the seventh chapter of Queer Time and Place:  Transgender Bodies and Subcultural Lives, Halberstam weaves personal accounts of her experience in the subcultural life of the punk music scene of 1970s England with theoretical arguments about “decisions that queer people make about where to live, how to live, and how to recraft relationality itself” (152).  Her own chapter exemplifies the call she makes for rethinking the boundary between the intellectual theorist and the subcultural participant.  The overall argument made in “What’s That Smell?” is that subcultural life descriptions of queer temporality disrupt the normative linear narrative of maturity.  The heteronormative view of subculture participation is that it is part of youth culture and ends in adulthood, presumably marriage and parenthood.  Queer temporalities which extend subculture participation beyond a person’s twenties into perhaps their forties or fifties are culturally viewed as an “extended adolescence.”  Halberstam draws on Butler’s concept of the ritual, which reinforces or rejects a cultural norm, and uses punk rock, particularly the riot grrrl movement because “punk has always been the stylized and ritualized language of the rejected” (153).

In order to better understand queer subcultures, Halberstam suggests three new ways of thinking about subcultures.  First, the boundary between the theorist and the subject (or subculture producer) needs to be revisioned.  As Halberstam herself illustrates, immersion within the culture produces blurry distinctions.  Second, subcultural study needs to be extended outside assumed heterosexual limits and become more inclusive and specific.  Subcultures are not limited to white male heterosexuals, and their study needs to account for much more diverse participants.  Third, much work still needs to be done to theorize the idea of the archive in queer subcultures.  Because of their ephemeral artifacts and spaces, an archive of queer memory and history should account for this transient quality.

Through examples of queer subcultures in the punk riot grrrl movement, lesbian slam poetry contests, homohop artists, and drag king boy band performers, Halberstam shows what theoretical discussions of queer subcultures can produce.  The “death” of the expert surfaces in the participation of academics in the subcultures as well as the smart, incisive lyrics of the punk music and the theorizing of the musicians themselves.  Through the discussion of lesbian slam poetry, Halberstam illustrates the attention to marginalized subcultures, especially lesbian subcultures and subcultures of color.  The other musical subcultures she explores depict the new ways of conceptualizing archives of queer memory and history through song and performance.  These archives highlight the difference of queer temporality and the way in which it challenges the binary of youth and adult.

Discussion Questions:

Halberstam articulates the nuanced performances of musicians and slam poets, but I’m unclear on what she means by “temporal drag” (182-3).  What does that look like?

One of her arguments about mainstream culture is that it absorbs and exploits subcultures in a “voyeuristic and predatory” way (157).  What other relationship can subcultures have to mainstream culture other than the oedipal relationship or this exploitative one Halberstam describes?

2 thoughts on “What’s That Smell? Halberstam (Shoemaker)

  1. Timothy Kirk

    Nicely done, Lauren. Your brief recapitulation of the text is much more lucid than my lengthy regurgitation of the same, but between us, we all have a summary and an outline of this 40 page document. Having said enough already, I will defer to your questions; they are excellent ^_^

  2. alexislothian

    Your second question and your first might be related, Lauren! If we think about temporal drag as what happens when subcultural production feels ‘dated’ and yet is current (drag in the sense of pulling backwards, rather than in the gender sense that is also clearly included in the coining of the term), maybe we will find that they exert different kinds of relationship to the mainstream. I wonder if you had any examples in mind, and look forward to talking about this in class.


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