Queer Identities, Temporalities, and Geographies – T. Kirk
How can a relational system be reached through sexual practices? Is it possible to create a homosexual mode of life? . . . To be “gay,” I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to try to define and develop a way of life.
–Michel Foucault, “Friendship as Way of Life”
As a segue into a synthesis of queer temporalities and geographies, I want to go back to a lingering question I have about “queer” identity and the age old question about “origins”? It seems that the question folds in on itself to a point of diminishing returns—a loaded question that becomes more abstract in the very act of attempting to make it concrete. To be honest, Foucault’s idea that “gay” is best understood as a “way of life” rather than as a sexual identity threw me, but as we’ve read Butler, Sedgwick, and Halberstam to grapple with epistemology and Delany, Herring, Tongson, and Bechdel to grapple with queer time, place, and space, I’m beginning to understand why he anticipated that a debate about the origin of “modern homosexuality” and the evolution of a “new species” is a problematic so fraught with ambiguities that he attempted to dissuade “queer” persons and their aide de camps and advocates from getting sucked into what Sedgwick eventually contends is a dangerous quagmire.
In Eve Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet, she contends the following: “Sex, gender, sexuality: three terms whose usage relations and analytical relations are almost irremediably slippery” (27). Before tackling “sexuality,” Sedgwick explains the difference between “sex” and “gender” on pages 27-28. When she finally addresses the question of “sexuality,” Sedgwick introduces what I would call a “true, blue problematic”:
For meanwhile the whole realm of what modern culture refers to as “sexuality” and also call “sex”—the array of acts, expectations, narratives, pleasures, identity-formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to cluster most densely around certain genital sensations but is not adequately defined by them—that realm is virtually impossible to situate on a map delimited by the feminist-defined sex/gender distinction. To the degree that it has a center or starting point in certain physical sites, acts, and rhythms associated (however contingently) with procreation or the potential for it, “sexuality” in this sense may seem to be of a piece with “chromosomal sex”: biologically necessary to species survival, tending toward the individually immanent, the socially immutable, the given. But to the extent that, as Freud argued and Foucault assumed, the distinctively sexual nature of human sexuality has to do precisely with its excess over or potential difference from the bare choreographies of procreation, “sexuality” might be the very opposite of what we originally referred to as (chromosomal-based) sex: it could occupy, instead, even more than “gender” the polar position of the relational, the social/symbolic, the constructed, the variable, the representational. To note that, according to these different findings, something legitimately called sex or sexuality is all over the experiential and conceptual map is to record a problem less resolvable than a necessary choice of analytic paradigms or a determinate slippage of semantic meaning; it is rather, I would say, true to quite a range of contemporary worldviews and intuitions to find that sex/sexuality does tend to represent the full spectrum of positions between the most intimate and the most social, the most predetermined and the most aleatory, the most physically rooted and the most symbolically infused, the most innate and the most learned, the most autonomous and the most relational traits of being. (29)
What is Sedgwick is saying about the “essentialized/fixed” vs. the “environmentally-relationally/fluid” nature of “sexuality”? My tentative conclusion is that however one might wish to scientifically, be it through soft or hard science, categorize, label, codify, and “normalize” the queer self, Foucault, Butler, Halberstam, join Sedgwick in a consensus that articulates the following: for many, many reasons we should resist the enlightenment, modernist compulsion to locate and absolutize the locus of homosexual/bisexual/transgendered/heterosexual desire and self-identification.
What comes to mind as a recent, pertinent illustration of our desire to create hard and fast demarcations, I am reminded of the question posed to Dr. Lothian this week about queer choice/predetermination in response to Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies and Subcultural Lives (loosely quoted from memory):
- “Dr. Lothian, do some people choose to be gay?”
- “Yes, certainly. I know people who would say that at a certain juncture in time they chose to be gay. That’s not everyone’s experience, but it is for some.”
Like our collective penchant for binaries (blacks/whites), I would suggest that we also have a natural desire (or at least a normative capacity) to name things; the unknown, the unnamable frighten us. Like Adam in the Garden, we wish to make hard and fast demarcations between things for the sake of clarity, order, and control; we wish to name them. Why? Why must we make certain that “queer” is safely located in a queered but “normative” space? Is it so that we can justify ourselves to an unbelieving world? Is it so that we can finally be recognized as having legitimacy where we have been denied it for so long? Is it so that we can feel safe inside a new queer “box”—a consensual space that every side recognizes? Yes, yes, and yes. But what are the intended and unintended consequences of allowing our identities to be co-opted, sequestered, and framed in a language that prescribes meaning to and for us? What are the unknown consequences of a queer unanimity?
I think that these questions lay at the heart of some the authors we studied in Week 1 and look forward to the questions raised by the authors of Week 2.
Finally, in the introduction to Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet, I noted that in her development of “Axiom 4,” she is dubious about what she calls the “immemorial, seemingly ritualized debates on nature verses nurture” that “take place against a very unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both nurture and nature” (40). Borne out of fear of those who oppose what Foucault coined as “modern homosexuality,” Sedgwick adopts the tone of a conspiracy theorist when she concludes this section by claiming that “there is no unthreatened, unthreatening conceptual home for a concept of gay origins. We have all the more reason, then, to keep our understanding of gay origin, of gay cultural and material reproduction, plural, multi-capillaried, argus-eyed, respectful, and endlessly cherished” (43-44).
And, I would add, endlessly ambiguous—intentionally so.
A nonessentialized, fluid sense of queer identity, precisely because it is located, not in a locus but in a liminal space, makes Delany, Herring, Tongson, and Bechdel’s critical engagement with temporalities and geographies that much more significant. If we cannot locate the center of queerness in bodies, then we must examine where “queerness” manifests itself in time and place/space. If queer identity is less about origins and more about a “way of life,” then gay cultural and material production, in dominant and subcultural frames need to take on a level of engagement commensurate with their representation of “queerness” as it is experienced, not in the abstract, but in real time.
On the surface of Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, one might miss the implications for queer identity because of his focus on place and space; place, as in actual, material brick and mortar locations for people “in a margin outside the margin,” and space for the people who use them to fulfill “needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge” (90). Delany argues, that though the porn theaters on 42nd Street were not romantic, per se, they did perform a vital function, one “socially beneficial to some small part of it,” but because the percentage is so small, it is relegated to a “certain social excess,” so tiny that it is allowed “to be dismissed—and physically smashed and flattened . . .” (90). And Delany the case, though it be strained or unintelligible for the average reader, that those encounters in the porn theaters were “humane and functional” in that they allowed a place and a space for persons to experiment, to identify, to form relationships, temporal relationships that may span a few minutes or a last for a decade. Delany contends the following:
They were encounters whose most important aspect was that mutual pleasure was exchanged—an aspect that, yes, colored all their other aspects, but that did not involve any sort of commitment. Most were affable but brief because, beyond pleasure, these were people you had little in common with. Yet what greater field and force than pleasure can human beings share? (56-57)
According to Delany there is a moral imperative attached to acknowledging the value of public places and space for what was once a “complex of interlocking systems and subsystems,” where “some of those systems were surprisingly beneficent—beneficent in ways that will be lost permanently unless people report on their own contact and experience with those subsystems” (xx). So Delany does make his case for acknowledging and maintaining access to those systems, not just of time and place/space, but also of identity in terms of a queer “way of life” that extends beyond the sexual, but by no means excludes it.
In a similar project, Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism explores the queer landscapes that have eluded a queer dominant narrative that fails to take into account the varied experiences of the majority of queer folks. Herring calls into question the performativity of queerness as it has evolved as a monolithic, modernist metronormative master narrative that has subsumed other lives—other forms of queer identity—other ways of life. Herring notes “that while ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ are often difficult to define, scholars in queer studies have detailed how the historical fictions of these two terms nevertheless sustain a variety of ruralized and urbanized populations across U.S. sexual history” (8-9). He then introduces the reader to a list of historians, cultural critics, anthropologists, and literary critics that have created the following:
. . . a reservoir of theoretical and historical knowledge that addresses queer life in the Deep South; negotiations of sexual separatism and assimilation in non-urban indigenous populations; the regional and international rise of white lesbian identity in the early twentieth-century United States; and the advocacy of queer rural African American literary and religious cultures in the North Carolina backwoods. (9)
Herring, like Delany, makes the case that something important to the lives of queer individuals is being overlooked and dismissed. He argues that “rather than reinforce stereotypes of the ‘rural’ as a cultural Podunk, these artists and authors pay heed to the ‘non-metropolitan’ as a dynamic space of inquiry and sexual vitality” (9) that resists a sycophantic, incestuous “metronormativity” espoused by . . . urbane-identified lesbians and gays,” who have developed and maintained pervasive class and geographic biases and managed to establish an “aristocratic” compulsion to “govern the aesthetic, erotic, material, and affective imaginaries of many modern queers—irrespective ‘country,’ ‘town,’ or somewhere in between—since at least the first third of the twentieth century” (17-18).
With a desire to be inclusive and with an eye on word count, allow me to conclude with a quote from Karen Tongson’s Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries and a look at Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgendered Bodies, Subcultural Lives.
Tongson joins the chorus and raises questions about a queer critical engagement that fails to recognize its own temptation to normalize what is inherently queer:
In so far as queer studies positions itself against normativity, as well as normative temporalities and geographies, part of the intervention I offer in Relocations is simply to recognize that normativity itself is no longer a stable category found in fixed spatial environments. Normativity has a new face and has proved itself adaptable to different landscapes, including the cities it once abandoned for the good life in the suburbs” (10).
In her introduction, Tongson goes on to argue that this ability to assimilate without assimilating—to be in the suburbs but not of it—is a refusal by queer folk to “luxuriate” in the “master-planned communities” of the burbs, but to “laugh, sway, watch, and sing along, focusing less on what is their due, understanding all the while that their task and their pleasure is to make do with a suburban world designed to keep them at bay or to expel them from its boundaries. They are the relocated: the queers, immigrants, and people of color who know that inhabiting the suburbs promises privileges but experience it otherwise” (20-21).
Both Herring and Tongson’s projects compliment what Halberstam’s theorizing and Alison Bechdel’s autobiography demonstrate. In Halberstam’s conclusion to In a Queer Time and Place, she reminds her reader the central assertion for her 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 introduction of her final chapter: “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 “luminal subjects,” and rushes her conclusion, where she states emphatically 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].
Halberstam’s project seems motivated by, or at least echoes Foucalt’s appeal that “gay” is best understood as a “way of life”—an alternative to the “norm”—or as Halberstam calls it, “the space for the alternative” (178). In her exploration of “the ritual ecstatic fan worship” characteristic at performances of “drag king boy” bands, she draws the following conclusion:
The fan desire and ecstasy can only be maintained by keeping at bay the erotic relations between boys, on the one hand, and the potentially erotic relations between the screaming girls, on the other. As the boys sing together, the girls scream together, and the whole-fragile edifice of heterosexuality could come tumbling down at any moment if the homosocial structures of desire are made explicit. . . . Finally, all of these representations of teen and youth genders offer us a space within which to think through the alternatives that young people create for themselves to the routine and tired options recycled by adult culture. (178-179)
Finally, if I’m reading Halberstam, Sedgwick, Herring, Tongson, and Bechdel correctly, I get the sense that they all agree that the binarisms establish either by the power of heteronormativity or the power of homonormativity fail to take into account the full spectrum of human desire, sexuality, and lives lived. LGBT scholars are cognizant of the fact that the American public, in particular, has been subjected to a media/Hollywood-induced fantasy-narrative that contends that every gendered person (male and female) is locked into an either/or sexual binary construct called “gay” or “straight.” Not only statistics but also critical engagement reveal that people can (and do frequently) slide from one to the other because of the faint, fluid lines between universal “homosocial and homosexual” attraction and “heterosocial and heterosexual” attraction. Depending upon genetic/environmental predispositions and long-term/immediate circumstances, the lines between “social” and “sexual” can be blurred if not erased (at least temporarily); for some folks this phenomenon occurs more easily than for others, but every human being is susceptible to crossing over—crossing what our media culture insists are fixed boundaries. Yes, we find safety and security in tidy binaries, don’t we? But to what effect, and to what affect?