I mentioned in my review of Queer: A Graphic History that I separated out the “review” from the “philosophy” in order to write about the book rather than the subject matter. Part of that was that I felt a need to discuss the ways in which Queer theory (or at least, the basics as described in that book) intersected with my own ideas and experience.
I chose the title: “Reluctantly Queered”, because I feel that my “natural” position is somewhat at odds with the theory as laid out, but at the same time my life and sense of self intersect with the ideas and some of them have value and use to me.
Before I address the ideas in the book directly, I will make two statements about where I am. The significance of these statements and how they challenge or are challenged by Queer Theory will become apparent quite quickly.
First: I am a Dominant, but I enjoy doing submission.
Second: I find a lot of value in an idea I developed after reading about the I Ching and Taoism in general, particularly the concept of yin and yang. I can’t claim that this is an accurate understanding of yin and yang, but it’s the version I developed for myself. This is that, although yin and yang represent binary contrasts: feminine/masculine, weak/strong, passive/active etc, they are like a language with two words and the use of a word to express one meaning does not imply all the other meanings. So in describing the world, yin and yang are always mixed and every thing or situation has elements of both, and (for example) “feminine” does not imply “weak”, any more than “set a puzzle” implies placing the puzzle into a group.
Those are two positions I brought with me to the book.
Their relevance can be seen if I say that the two recurrent themes in Queer: A Graphic History are as follows:
- Queer is doing, not being – Queer theory rejects identity in favour of performance
- Queer theory is about challenging binaries; binaries (inherently?) lead to hierarchies and should be broken down
My sense of Dominant as something I am, and that I relate to Dominance in a different way from how I relate to Submissive as something that I do, challenges the idea that all identity can be resolved into performance – and is challenged by an analysis that is based primarily on performativity.
My sense that binaries are plural, complex and not inherently hierarchical challenges and is challenged by a position that is primarily about breaking down binaries and that sees binaries as problematic in themselves, and as simplifying (oversimplifying) the world.
One might say that my inclination is towards ideas that are antagonistic to the central themes of Queer theory.
Thus, as the ideas were introduced I found myself interrogating them and forming objections. to be fair, the authors Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele (hereafter referred to by their initials so I don’t have to type them as often!), include later in the book a look at some of the common challenges that have been levelled against Queer theory and some of these reflected or touched upon my own challenges (although in general I felt they were not the same challenges, and the answers were not necessarily relevant to the points I was questioning).
I also found myself engaging with how the ideas were useful to me or reflected other concepts that were familiar from me from other disciplines, or from other areas of philosophy and political activism.
The book (by which I mean, unless otherwise indicated, “Queer: A Graphic History”) starts by discussing some language terms, including the various ways in which the term “queer” has been used, and then a brief history of “sexology” and how the study of sex in Western academia has produced certain assumptions about sexuality – fixed, binary, and “right/wrong”.
Then we are introduced to Queer theory’s tenets. M-JB offers the following bullet points:
- Resisting the categorization of people
- Challenging the idea of essential identities
- Questioning binaries like gay/straight, male/female
- Demonstrating how things are contextual, based on geography, history, culture, etc.
- Examining the power relations underlying certain understandings, categories, identities, etc
After looking at the history of binary perceptions of sex and gender, the next step is to ook at the history of Queer theory, starting with the origins in mid-20thC existentialism and Kinsey’s research into sexual behaviour, tracing through Black feminism and intersectionality up to Post-Structuralists.
Oddly, in this journey it was the Black feminism that spoke best to me – perhaps this is because of the summaries chosen by M-JB and JS to illustrate their contributions. Perhaps also it is because these are ideas developed by people who have a direct vested interest in the ideas because of lived experience.
Certainly, my response to a lot of the text about post-structuralism was that it seemed terribly navel-gazing and verging on sophistry. I found myself yearning for something in the book that could link this to the concrete world and lives lived in it, rather than a bunch of academics pulling ideas out their arses! The most applicable ideas I found there were those that to me harked back to concepts that for me are familiar from the previous century.
For instance, the summary of Michel Foucault’s thought brought to mind Hegelian dialectic, and Marx’s analysis of class and labour relations – ironic since post-structuralists are, “critical of theories based on grand narratives that attempt to explain all of human experience in terms of one specific structure, like … Marx (the social structure of the class system)”
Even more ironic is that Marx in many ways made similar challenges – he and Engels analysed this in terms of “how things are contextual, based on geography, history, culture” and “examining the power relations underlying certain understandings, categories, identities, etc” – the strength of Marx is that he demonstrated how these arise out of the material and shared experiences of people in similar material relations to the world.
Marx was not in any way a forward thinker (Engels perhaps more so) when it comes to sexuality, gender or race but the tools of dialectical materialism seem relevant to the types of analysis framed in Queer theory, if applied in that direction. My feeling and frustration was that post-structuralism represented a retreat into an idealism (in the sense that that term was applied by Marx to describe Hegel).
As I said, the philosophers of existentialism and post-structuralism struck me as rather navel-gazing and building ideas not on the shared world but treating it as if what we say about it is what matters (thus allowing there to be “many truths”).
(Yes, I know that with quantum superposition, entanglement and other such effects, one might argue that physics also allows there to be many equally true stories about the world; but physics also requires that interactions between those stories cause them to coalesce into a single observation. I will leave it for the reader to investigate to see if that concept has relevance in the social world and Queer theory – I happen to think that it does!)
The post-structuralist section is also the part where my sense of identity challenges (and is challenged by) Queer theory.
The post-structuralist theory states that identity is not fixed, and “there’s no single truth about who we are. We can always tell multiple stories about ourselves, and none of them is the truth.” Instead, “We come to occupy these identities through our relations with the world in which we reside”
I spoke about being Dominant and doing Submission before. I also don’t really do any of those things when I am at work – I relate to work in a different way from how I relate to my family, and distinct from that again is how I relate to friends, and yet again how I relate to sexual partners, and so on.
Queer theory would have me believe that these are all distinct identities that I fluidly negotiate and move between, but to me they are different “doings” but not different “beings”. Because I am able to observe myself from within, I can trace how the same personality traits drive and motivate my actions, how the same collection of principles and memories and needs nevertheless produce various different ways of navigating a space depending on what sort of space it is.
I feel as though a post-structuralist would look at a tall ship in clear, fair sailing weather with all sails billowing, and think it has a different identity from the one showing only its lowest sails and ploughing through a storm. It is the same ship, but rigged and presenting differently because the needs of the circumstance are different.
For me, I have several online identities in which I allow different aspects of my personality to come to the fore. That ought to mean I would be directly in agreement with the ideas above, but I am also aware how all the different names also share all things in common so that they are at once different and the same.
Thus, identity can be both fixed, and yet also contextual.
The Submissive Valery is motivated by similar personality traits to the Dominant Valery, but Dominant is something I see myself as being, whereas Submission is something I see myself as doing. I think it would be a whole post of its own (and some deep self-analysis!) to dig out why, but I know that Dominance is something I revert to, whereas Submission is something I make an effort to inhabit – so that even in my online identities that I created for submissive purposes, I often find myself being cast by partners into switching and more often dominating them than vice versa.
Now, it might be questioned whether those personality traits are fixed or changing (I suspect that they do vary over a lifetime, but when I think about how I my younger self might view me, and vice versa, I think although we would each think the other a colossal twat, we would still share the same motivations and personality traits to a large extent – out mutual twat-judgement would be based more on differing understandings based on the experiences I’ve had since then and the conclusions I’ve come to. For instance, back then, I spouted a lot of Nice Guy crap! But equally, I am now more embracing of violence in a way that my younger self would reject.)
Another consequence of the Queer theory approach is that it seems to ask us to ignore distinctions and differences that have practical effects. There’s a page with three celebrities discussing gender and sexuality:
Ruby Rose “I’m somewhere in the middle of the spectrum”
Miley Cyrus “I don’t feel the need to label my gender or sexuality”
Kristen Stewart “I don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re ‘gay’ or ‘straight’”
While this is a great place to aim for in some ways, I feel like being able to name your attractions and communicate them is useful.
I think also that a celebrity has a lot more scope to be “different” than I have experienced.
For me, despite my binary-challenging traits (see below), I have to negotiate that reality through the socially-male-coded body that I actually inhabit, and I have to negotiate the challenges of being one thing but for safety and convenience having to perform another – which is to say, I perform “straight man” while being and yearning to perform and represent, a bisexual genderfluid nonbinary.
Queer theory as a root of activism can move towards where that might be easier for me, but it can’t change the concrete material realities of my body that mitigate against my doing so. For that, I need (for instance) laser facial hair removal.
* * *
As noted above, binaries are seen as problematic, apparently in themselves.
Much of Queer theory as presented in the book, is about opening up the spaces between the binary options: genderfluid, genderqueer, trans, and so on as other spaces in gender, for example. There’s a page of celebrities quoting their statement of rejecting gender.
I ought to be on board with this: my identity inhabits some of those nonbinary positions directly; I am bisexual, and moreover I am not evenly bisexual. Moreover, my attractions challenge the conception of binary gender: there are specific sub-genders of women and men that I find much more attractive then others; and then there are the nonbinary genders I also find hot.
And I am myself rejecting of my assigned-at-birth gender role and identity: in the way described in the book, I find myself turning my back on the designation of “man” because I cannot inhabit all that that seems to carry with it. If I had at my command some of the concepts in Queer theory when I was 8 or 9 and choosing to defy gender norms of hair length, then perhaps I might have had a place to put myself that I could make sense of myself outside of the binary a lot sooner.
And my body, as documented on this blog, is a project in becoming closer to the nonbinary gender that I feel myself to be internally.
(And here, there is another challenge to and from Queer theory – while it is true that gendering my body is a matter of perception, the concrete reality of what my body is and isn’t is still something to be related to and something that I can change only by determined action, not by changing perceptions. Remember what I said about concrete, material, facts versus idealist/perceptualist navel-gazing? Or, as Marx put it, “the point, however, is to change the world”.)
However, I am going to say that not all binaries are bad. Some are very useful.
There is, regardless of the post-structuralist idea, a real and important binary between a fact and an opinion. This is valuable and useful!
There is also a very important binary between “yes” and “no”. Which is to say, between consent and nonconsent. Even when people play with such concepts as “consensual nonconsent”, that distinction remains and is important.
Now, there are lots of nonbinary expressions within each, and some ways of saying “yes” include the word “no”, and some ways of saying “no” nevertheless use the word “yes” (but if you actually care about consent, then you will notice when yes means no, or be aware of why yes does not mean yes). But the distinction is important and valuable and it is a binary, even if there are gradations and variations and caveats on either side of the divide.
Another way I look at this is through analysis within the kink communities I’ve participated in, and some of the work that’s been done academically. There, we talk about layers of consent, layers of meaning, and layers of power dynamic – on these levels the Sub has the power, and on these other levels the power is with the Dom, and on this other level it’s sort of shared… This harks back to my conception of binaries in terms of the multiplicity of yin and yang, rather than as simple “either/or”. In some of the later pages of their book, M-JB and JS introduce the possibility of softening Queer theory by introducing “and” to represent identities such as “genderfluid AND hairy-bodied” (I keep using this example from my own experience in this discussion!) rather than out-and-out destroying binaries or erasing boundaries that might be felt to be important.
Similarly, there is a binary between “attracted” and “not attracted”. And that can be contextual and fluid, but it is still there. For example, I have been listening through my iTunes collection of “Metal Hammer” cover CDs and reassessing the tracks and how much I like them. I found myself giving track after track the same rating, and wondering if there was a reason – perhaps I was just in the right mood for heavy metal, and perhaps last time I listened I had been treating it almost as a chore and not engaging with how much I liked the tracks, so I liked them more the second time around.
But at the same time, when it comes to sex, even if I find a person attractive one day and not the next when i see them in a different circumstance, then that state is binary.
Attraction may have gradations, but it still falls into a binary.
I recall learning about binary code in electronics. (I believe this was specifically with relation to the old analogue TV “teletext” system – I did a project on it at school and the BBC engineering department kindly sent me a whole load of technical information.) We’re taught to think of switches as being “on” or “off”, and by extension, current to be “on” or “off”. In actual fact, there is a threshold – current can be anywhere between 0 and 100% capacity, so in order to declare current “on” or “off” there has to be a threshold above which the current is “on”, and below which it counts as “off” even if there is some current flowing.
So again, it is possible to be both binary and nonbinary – the important thing is, is my “attraction-current” enough to count as “on” for the given situation and purpose? That’s a binary, and as I said, I think it’s important. But the attraction itself can be fluid and multi-variable.
* * *
All that said, I mentioned that there are some very useful tools and analyses to be found in this introduction to Queer theory, such that I haven’t rejected the idea of eroding or breaking binaries – rather, I have rejected breaking binaries as a goal in itself and the construction of binaries as “problematic” – before declaring it problematic, one must look at what it does. This is supposedly a tenet of Queer theory, but it feels like Queer would have it that we’re requiring a reason to not break it, whereas I would look for a reason to break it. Usually, the reasons to do so are easy – that’s how come Queer theory developed, and how come it is useful in a lot of cases.
Intersectionality is also an important part of Queer theory, and it came out of Black feminisms (remember what I said about finding their thought more useful?) – the idea that my kinks don’t stand separate from my genderfluidity, which doesn’t stand separate from my sexual attractions, which doesn’t stand separate from… and so on. And these don’t stand separate from the privileges that I enjoy as White, and as “socially-perceived-as-male” (I just noticed, that makes “SPAM” – oops!)
While I don’t necessarily agree with ditching identities, the analysis in terms of doing is also useful; and the analysis in post-structural terms of there being multiple narratives is also valuable, not least because it echoes an intuition I have about a lot of things, which is simply that different people arrive at similar behaviours by different routes – rather than there being a single aetiology of kink, for example, there are many different ways in which one can find oneself to share interests that fall under the kink/BDSM/fetish banner and the existence of one does not negate the reality of others. (The same goes for homosexual behaviour, for instance.)
In this sense, the most interesting part of Queer: A Graphic History is the section on where next for Queer theory. Turning its own analyses on itself, and in particular adding to that my own observations, it is possible to question whether Queer theory has become itself a “grand structure” of the type critiqued by its post-structuralist forebears and try breaking down the absolutes (such as the assumption that binaries are bad, or that identities have no place).
In the same ways as I have drawn ideas from many sources to build a worldview and philosophy of life, I find there to be useful and valuable insights in Queer theory that I can use to build a better and more nuanced picture of society and my own selfhood. But as with most philosophies, I don’t find myself able to accept all of it.
* * *
So, I cast myself as reluctantly queered – queer theory is not a realm I inhabit easily, but at the same time my reality and my experiences, my identities and roles, place me in a queered relation to normativities. Regardless of where I “would” be, I am queer, and Queer theory applies to me at least in part.
I am and I do. And in different ways, those are queer statements.