Summary of The Introduction to What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now? By David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam and Jose Esteban Munoz

In an attempt to prepare readers for the rigor and depth of the sixteen essays contained in the Fall-Winter issue of Social Text, Eng, Halberstam and Munoz write, “The various essays gathered here insist that the considerations of empire, race, migration, geography, subaltern communities, activism and class are central to the continuing critique of queerness, sexuality, sexual subcultures, desire and recognition” (2). The series of terms in their dense list alone deserve a summary of their own.  In the interest of making this summary of a summary a cogent and usable document, however, what I will do in the following page or so is provide some unpacking of those terms and some context for the tensions they are producing in the issue and the larger field of Queer Studies.

The summary itself has a brief introduction and then is broken up into three sections: “Queer Epistemology”, “Queer Diasporas” and “Queer Liberalism”.  In the summary’s introduction, the overall aim of the essays is revealed.  In short, the essays seek to reassess critical discourses, refocus the political locations of those discourses and establish further voicing of the current moment in queer studies.  Eng, Halberstam and Munoz name the historical moment by pointing out that this is a time when shows like The L Word, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or RuPaul’s Drag race evince that “Queer” identities have become commodified, and it’s time to take notice.  To add, the geopolitical moment of national identities coming more fully into a space of questioning, mirrors the true nature of all identities including queer, which run in and through adjacent identities and even transform identities.  The tensions of the current historical moment are returned to again under the “Queer Diasporas” section when Jasbir K. Puar’s essay is mentioned.  In it he explores the ways American exceptionalist narratives subsume queer subjects using gay marriage to flip the narrative to one of patriotism, nationalism and loyalty insidiously replacing “any and all principled objection to state violence and torture exemplified by Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib”(9).

It is in the initial section (“Queer Epistemology”) however, where the argument is made that  by de limiting Queer Studies’ focus to a binary opposition to heteronormativity, scholars do a disservice to the real work and potential of the field, which is to enact “thorough resistance to the regimes if the normal” (3).  The essays included in that section, written by Tavia Nyong’o, Joon Oluchi Lee and Amy Villarejo respectively all explode this limited focus.  This is particularly true of Tavia Nyong’o “Punk’d Theory” which takes up the ways in which positions of abjection intersect with queer ness. The term “punk” and “punked” being just one of them.  She also expands her inquiry to the raced, gendered and classed intersectionality of naming.

The term “chosen family” was resonant among my queer friends in the 1990’s, as many of them were faced with rejection by their biological families.  The second section, “Queer Diasporas” seeks to continually question and subvert the normalized idea of a “familial”, or more pointedly, racial diaspora; a diaspora built on “traditional family and kinship structures” (7).  In this section, Gayatri Gopinath points out the rise in popularity of the Bollywood musical in post 9/11 America and how this “multiculturalism” works within the heteronormative framework to make a “queer south Asian female diasporic subject an impossible figure”(8).  Chandon Reddy discusses the US policy of family reunification and how it works to prop up the heteropatriarchal family unit and supplement a gendered and raced low wage workforce.  Martin F. Manalansan exposes the gentrification of the Jackson heights neighborhood and how the location of wealth and mobility was transferred to the mostly white and male queer community that took up residence there after 9/11.  He further delineates how the discourse of “personal responsibility” is used to silence dissention and placate the notion of questioning the capitalist hegemony of raced exchanges of wealth.  The section concludes with a discussion of the radical essay, “JJ Chinois’s Oriental Express, or How a Suburban Heartthrob Seduced Rural America”.  In it, Karen Tongson explores how the “dykesporic” world of JJ Chinois ( the alter ego of Lynne Chan) “explodes” narratives of queer bodies moving from the provincial suburban landscape to the urban one populated by “hip metro sexuality” by locating himself in cyberspace.

The final section, “Queer Liberalism” names the ways in which the current “post racial” discourse works to subvert interrogation of racial hegemony and to subsume queer interrogations of the power systems that were Pre/racial in the first place.  Lisa Dugan names heteronormativity for the ways the pro-gay marriage lobby works for inclusion in these uncritical ranks of the citizenry.  Later, Hiram Perez and Judith Halberstam both revisit a 2003 conference which invited only one queer scholar of color.  Perez and Halberstam noted the scholarship that continually sought to locate a transparent white subject at the center of queer studies, and refused to engage with the ways “establishmentarian queer theory” (12) colluded with American liberalism.  The most striking portion of the section for most would be its ending parsing of religious freedom, but for me, the bomb is dropped before that.  This occurs when Halberstam takes aim at “gay pride” parsing out the problematic “gay” because it is reductive and less usable than queer and pride because it harkens back to the shame narrative that has been privileged by white male subjectivity.  Halberstam contends that rather than working to bolster individual pride we must critique the systems that produced the shame.

One thought on “Summary of The Introduction to What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now? By David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam and Jose Esteban Munoz

  1. alexislothian

    Eng, Halberstam and Munoz may be summarizing, but they are also setting forth their ideas about what queer studies as a field ought to be –– the genre of the journal special issue introduction can often be quite a polemical one, and it is here too, as your explanation of the issue’s interventions shows. “What’s queer about queer studies?” Not, perhaps, what an outsider to the field might expect.


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