Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Swimming in Queer Theory - Judith Halberstam@Warwick (Part 1)

Liz Morrish and Gary Needham participated in a day of queer theory events on the 16th February organised by Cath Lambert and led by Judith Halberstam; these included a queer theory workshop, lunch, and a formal paper on queer and feminist art.

The morning session workshop was on trends in queer theory in which Judith Halberstam identified several new avenues of exploration that she saw as the vanguard in recent queer scholarship. The workshop was structured around three readings that the participants (about 20 of us) had been given in advance. These were the introductory chapters to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique (2004), and Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer Theory (2007). Usefully, Halberstam effortlessly teased out the main arguments from each of these introductions in order to pose much broader questions about the direction queer theory might be heading over the next few years. We feel they are worth summarising here.

Edelman’s No Future is by now a well-rehearsed critique of the normative effects of temporality that reveals how the figure of the child functions as the lynchpin of a future defined solely in reproductive and familial terms. Queerness occupies the side of those ‘not fighting for the children’ thus queers are defined as future-negating. Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black proposes critique of US sociology that defines as aberrant everything which lies outside of the white family. Queer theory, then, must acknowledge its genealogy and affiliation with women of color feminism in order to develop a queer of color analysis. Ferguson’s work not only racializes queer theory’s implicit whiteness but also seeks to undo the rigid disciplinarity that has often kept the study of race and sexuality separate from one another. Finally, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward suggests that is too early for queers to turn away from the shame, and recommends we engage in a ‘backward looking’ as a way to investigate the shame which is part of our history and identity. Even in an era that celebrates gay pride, there are those traces – structures of feeling – that leave an indelible trace of shame. Shame thus “lives on in pride” despite attempts to appropriate it as a reverse discourse.

Judith Halberstam prompted us into group discussion in order to think about how the future of queer theory (paradoxically based on concepts of backwardness and negativity). The questions that came out of these complex arguments were to get us thinking about how we (as queers) might embrace a negative impulse in directly political terms as a form of resistance to the prevailing social order. Halberstam also asked could we find a way out of melancholia, shame and negativity – and what are the political alternatives and what are the other legacies we can activate? How can we imagine a queer future in the absence of ‘the Child’? Can we also speak of a queer affectivity? If the goals of queer theory have been to shatter, resist, disrupt - what other projects can we claim for queer theory?

While the workshop did raise more questions than it could possible answer it proved a useful overview of some recent trends in queer theory and the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves especially if we are to maintain queer theory as a distinctly political and relevant form of critique and analysis.

Liz found Judith Halberstam terrific and likewise Gary was impressed by the effortlessness with which she brought together these three distinct debates in queer theory. Unlike so many queer theory divas, Judith was approachable, unselfconscious, interested and extremely skilled at managing a discussion with participants at different levels of understanding. Over lunch Liz discovered, much to her delight, that Judith was a major swim-head with an obsession about water that rivalled her own. Given Liz’s readings of Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and Drag King Book not to mention the various articles on butchness, FTM and transgender – indeed, given Liz’s reading of Judith super-cool masculine physical self-presentation – Liz was intrigued at the idea of negotiating a pool with Judith (what swim attire would she wear?) and of course the women’s locker room. Cursing herself for not bringing her cozzie, Liz realised she wasn’t going to find out experientially, so she asked Judith instead. They discussed the practices, paradoxes, concealments and confoundings of gender in the swimming environment. Fascinating stuff. What a duo and what a challenge to gender normativity. Liz will always regret not swimming with Judith Halberstam. And off Judith went to turn heads in the Warwick pool leaving Liz to debate Warwick’s campus cuisine with Gary.
(photo credit: Arbitrary.Marks/Colleen Keating)

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