Kirk synthesis 1

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, we hear characters utter the following: “Unanimity requires compliance,” and “all boundaries are conventions.” The novel is a strikingly poignant look at the “revolution” at work in the philosophies and critical theories of the academy, and there are both intersections and cross sections with my own value system. Yet, it is interesting to see queer theory doing its work outside of the academy, for that is exactly what I saw in the film version of Mitchell’s work over the weekend. My viewing reminded me of Dr. Lothian’s question posed last week: “How can one be in the academy but not of it?” What exigencies are requisite to the public intellectual vs. the cloistered one? What audiences are peculiar to David Mitchell, Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Eve Sedgwick? Might it be possible that the academy is informing culture–shifting it? Certainly, the cultural utility of queer studies seems to maintain a faith in the possibility of shifting power through critical analysis, cultural engagement, and strategic activism. But what is queer theory, exactly?

As a teaser, I’ve attached a couple of clips from the film version of Mitchell’s novel that introduces the ideas that “all boundaries are conventions” and that to cross those boundaries is not only “forbidden” and “dangerous,” but also necessary, for to maintain “heteronormativity” is to maintain “invisibility,” and that is the greatest crime of all:

Again, what is queer theory, anyway? I suspect that Susan’s question towards the end of our first week together summed up other’s frustrations as well. It is a difficult question at hand, one with varied answers and one worthy of an entire collection of essays on the topic. As I outlined in my summary of Halley and Parker’s introduction to After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory, the question lingers and affords budding scholars, such as ourselves, a unique opportunity to weigh in with our own tentative conclusions on the matter. Having noted Luke’s answer to Susan’s confession and query, I must confess that his comment made the abstract concrete for me in that moment: Yes, “‘queer’ represents anything non-normative.” His comment reminded me of the introduction to What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?, where the authors concur with Judith Butler [2] by stating the following:

The contemporary mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identity—as a mass-mediated consumer lifestyle and embattled legal category—demands a renewed queer studies ever vigilant to the fact that sexuality is intersectional, not extraneous to other modes of difference, and calibrated to a firm understanding of queer as a political metaphor without a fixed referent. (Eng 1)

Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz clarify the state of queer studies today. Yes, queer studies may have been sequestered to a study of strict sexuality in the past [1], but not only is “sexuality intersectional” with a “political utility” that intersects with “contemporary politics of identity, kinship, and belonging,” but also, according to these authors, queer studies occupies a space of “intellectual and political relevance to a wide field of social critique” (Eng 1). Under the subheading “Queer Epistemology,” the authors, again, refer to the utility of a theory that “has no fixed political referent”:

What might be called the “subjectless” critique of queer studies disallows any positing of a proper subject of or object for the field by insisting that queer has no fixed referent. Such an understanding orients queer epistemology, despite the historical necessities of “strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Spivak’s famous term), as a continuous deconstruction of the tenets of positivism at the heart of identity politics.” (Eng 3)

Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz’s answer to Halley and Parker’s question about the “purview” of queer studies seems to be that anything that lies outside of the normalizing knowledge production of heteronormativity is “queer” and intersects with the moral imperative of a critical analysis that Michael Warner describes as a “subjectless critique” of “’a wide field of normalization’ as the site of social violence” (Eng 3). The authors’ full paraphrase of Warner might prove useful here:

A subjectless critique establishes, in Michael Warner’s phrase, a focus on “a wide field of normalization” as the site of social violence. Attention to those hegemonic social structures by which certain subjects are rendered “normal” and “natural” through the production of “perverse” and “pathological” others, Warner insists, rejects a “minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal.” (Eng 3)

Queer Theory, then, is a critique of any normalizing affect manufactured by “hegemonic social structures” that reify binaries for the purpose of forced unanimity by means of “social violence.” Warner insists that to simply accept the logic of “minoritizing” is to accept mere toleration, and he advocates for a more radical “resistance to regimes of the normal” that do more than accede to being tolerated and seek to resist (or upend) what Foucault referred to as the “power of normalization.”

Of course, Foucault’s theory of “power” needs to be unpacked, but before we go there, Ann Laura Stoler will help us to understand queer as non-normative by thinking about the connection between the “power of normalization” and “race.” In Race and the Education of Desire, Stoler contends that the “power of normalization,” as conceived by Foucault, is best understood as “biopower”: a “new biopolitic ‘management of life,’” where “sex not only stamped individuality; it emerged as ‘the theme of political operations’ and as an ‘index of a society’s strength, revealing of both its political energy and biological vigor” (34-35). Stoler reminds us that Foucault “set out ‘to write a history of boundaries . . .  by which a culture rejects something that it will designate for itself as Exterior’” (34). Thus, in Stoler’s argument that “modern racism is the historical outcome of a normalizing society,” we also find a helpful definition of “queer” that clearly denotes the non-normative:

This creation of the “internal enemy” and of “the dangerous individual,” both framed within a “theory of social defense,” will be fundamental . . . to how Foucault will explain the racisms of modern states. As George Mosse, among others, has noted, the distinction between normality and abnormality, between bourgeois respectability and sexual deviance, and between moral degeneracy and eugenic cleansing were the elements of a discourse that made unconventional sex a national threat and thus put a premium on managed sexuality for the health of the state.” (34)

Through the “power of normalization,” one expedited by the felt needs of the culture, anything perceived to be non-normative is understood to be a dangerous enemy, and with the power of the state in lockstep with the power of cultural institutions (and language), we have a “racialized” heteronormativity meted out with the iron scepter of the culture as monolith. As Foucault illustrates in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, power is omnipresent, everywhere, and “’Power,’ insofar as it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing . . . . is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (93). In this iron-clad context, then, when the queer theorist is confronted with the monolithic power of normalization and the ubiquitous normalization of power so constituted, queer theory’s antinormative project, according to Siobhan B. Somerville, is to “attempt to challenge identity categories that are presented as stable, transhistorical, or authentic” (190). Somerville also contends that the field of queer studies has increasingly used “’intersectional’ approaches that begin with the assumption that sexuality cannot be separated from other categories of identity and social status” (190).

In Queer and Now Eve Sedgwick corroborates Eng, Halberstam, Muñoz, Warner, Mosse, Foucault and Stoler when she argues “that ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8). When the cultural, through the vehicle of the state, requires unanimity via compliance, queer studies stands in the gap as an advocate for those “queer” folks who are marginalized out of visibility.  According to Sedgwick, queer theorists “are using the leverage of ‘queer’ to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state. Thereby, the gravity (I mean the gravitas, the meaning, but also the center of gravity) of the term ‘queer’ itself deepens and shifts” (9).


[1] A self-definition borne out of an historical necessity of what Spivak calls a “strategic essentialism” and Foucault deems a “reverse discourse” that used “the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” to begin “to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged.” (Foucault 101)

[2] “The operations of queer critique, in other words, an neither be decided on in advance nor be depended on in the future. The reinvention of the term is contingent on its potential obsolescence, one necessarily at odds with any fortification of its critical reach in advance or any static notion of its presumed audience and participants.” (Eng 3)


Other key terms:

Halbertam (119) – knowledge production
Somerville (189) – normative/non-normative
Ferguson (194) – race (citizenship, gender, sexual regulation) – intersectionality


One thought on “Kirk synthesis 1

  1. alexislothian Post author

    I took the liberty of editing this post to make it appear in the right place on the blog!

    Thanks for gathering together the threads of our first week’s reading so cohesively. I especially appreciated your connection to the idea that queer theory has places outside as well as within the academy. I haven’t seen or read Cloud Atlas, but of course one of the main contexts the film holds for me is Lana Wachowski’s public statements about her experiences coming out as a trans woman… It would be reductive to connect “all boundaries are conventions” directly to that, of course, but it still might be interesting to think about the potential commentary on transgender discourse in the Wachoswkis’ films.

    The film moves to the side as you go on to discuss the strands that connect our different readings and their various understandings of queer theory, but I wonder what an analysis of its narrative and visuality in the light of questions about racialized normativity would offer; just from the YouTube clips you shared, I’m thinking about the sexualization of the Asian woman’s body we see, and about the ship in relationship to colonialism.


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