“What We Have Now”

If a certain kind of queer theory, emanating primarily from the English departments of elite universities, is dead, we need not mourn. What we have now is a plenitude of promiscuous engagements across disciplinary and institutional boundaries now remaking fields and politics in ways the queer theory of 10 years ago could not have imagined.—Lisa Duggan

During a recent encounter, shall we call it queer, I mused about the anxiety expressed by a recent book about the “state” of queer theory: it was, this book claimed, in need of “revival.” Coincidentally, this book’s leading chapter focused on Frankenstein. What, I wondered, was this object that needed to be revived? I am, I must confess, not a student of Shelley’s novel. I am more familiar with its multiple adaptations or, more precisely, mutations. More in tune with what “it’s supposed to be about” than “what it’s about.”

From the rough assemblage in my head, Frankenstein is about rough assemblage: the putting together of available parts to create something not-quite-new. This version owes more to Disney than Shelley, but I want to use it irresponsibly to ask about the “new” of queer theory and politics, the territories of reach and grasp and gaze, what feels, increasingly, less like transfer and contagion and more Eliotian, a gathering of “fragments” to “shore” against “ruin.”

Where Duggan’s privileged metaphor is “promiscuity,” a metaphor I like very much, I would amend that to read velvet rope promiscuity: guaranteed by bouncers who are always on the lookout for the “new,” the “fashionable,” the “interesting,” the “trendy,” and the “retro.” One envisions a 70s club filled with trend-spotters, or whatever the term is now. Curiously much recent work in queer studies focuses on the 70s.

It is, perhaps, that I am genuinely wary of “the new.” And I am even more wary of how the “new” is enfolded into a project of “newness.” Melvin Dixon haunts me: “You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.” What is the memory-work of the “new”?

A lesson from the past.

Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark represents the most significant engagement with the possibilities of poststructuralism (as claim, as method, as ambition, as strategy) in African American studies. How, Morrison asked, could one speak of the Africanist presence in texts that appeared indifferent to race, that featured no black subjects? How, in other words, could the normatively raced subject of literary studies—still white, still male—be embedded within the logic and practice of race from which he benefits by fading into the background, as, to invoke Derrida, the center that is both inside and outside of “structure”?

I invoke Morrison’s use of poststructuralism to counter less responsible uses of it around race. While Morrison was teaching us to attend to the ethical and political possibilities of poststructuralism for race-based labor, which is all labor, other very smart critics were intent on proving that race “did not exist,” that the opposition between white and black was a “fiction,” and this potentially interesting move meant that the critics did not have to think about blackness at all: for to deconstruct the opposition between black and white, or to perform an operation designated as that, left us with a racelessness that defaulted to whiteness. Thus, one read articles “against race” that were conveniently blinded by their own “race,” convinced, somehow, that “racelessness” had no ideological value. One witnessed the return of universal man, celebrated as man beyond race.

Interested in poststructuralism, indebted to it, I struggled against what I intuited as the rightness of minority critics who warned against its dangers: the system we inhabit, they said, will do its best to erase us. I thought, then, that cracks and crevices would provide enough space. That sneaking into a party through the service entrance still allowed one to smell the staleness of expensive colognes. That this was enough. That saturating my clothing with the smell of stale cigarettes would prove belonging. Or attempt it.
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The most recent issue of GLQ announces a certain arrival: Black/Queer/Diaspora. We are back to slashes. And platform shoes. Jaffari Allen provides a lovely introduction, a mapping of fields, an invitation to think along with. A bad-mannered guest, I pause at endnotes.

Despite our best efforts [to solicit work from non-U.S.-based contributors] logistics, language, limited networks, and disparate measures of “quality” and “appropriateness” across different types of borders, as well as limitations of space and time (of would-be participants and of this publication) all proved formidable [obstacles].

One reads this nodding and wondering about the thick realities of “queer time,” “queer materialities,” “queer forms,” even “queer failure.” About the boundaries of our legibilities, our capacities, our incapacities. Our still-limited idioms. The discipline of “quality” and “appropriateness.”

Would it be queer to risk illegibility? Or is that beyond the possible? And, how strange that an issue on black/queer/diaspora dares not to risk the illegibility of blackness: black ink on a blackboard.

I ask for the impossible. Forgive my desire. My appetite has yet to master the right idioms.
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And still I wonder about the extravagance of our claims, our claims to newness.

I learned to think queerly from Melvin Dixon, Audre Lorde, Assotto Saint, Amos Tutuola. And I want to stay with them for a while. Just a little longer. I am not yet “over” them.

The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
free.—Audre Lorde, “The Black Unicorn”
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In an early issue of GLQ, Lee Edelman proclaimed that queer studies could never be “home,” arguing,

Opening spaces, reclaiming them, may be central to the enterprise of queer theory as it proliferates, but defining a space or a state of our own, insisting that we recognize and collectively accede to some common territorial boundaries, this is a fantasy, though enabling for some, that is profoundly dangerous in its reproduction of the exclusion—and of the motivating logic of exclusion—on which the heterosexual colonization of social reality is predicated.

Edelman reminds me that queer studies has always been possibility—a space for dreaming and visioning, that it never coalesced into a body that now needs reviving having become moribund, in one version, or an expansive colonizing force, claiming more fields and disciplines, in another.

And, perhaps, I register unease about reach and grasp, about the uses of “promiscuity” to describe queer labor, especially as people of color now populate the fields where that labor takes place. Fanon continues to warn me about the spectacle of black labor and pleasure.

And because the queer theory I learned is so ten years ago, I want to suggest that its imagination was more expansive than we might now allow, that if, to use Adrienne Rich’s terms, it “had not imagined us” in our particular fleshly incarnations, it had imagined. Beyond reach, and grasp, and gaze.
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Beyond reach and grasp and gaze because I’m itchy about “what we have now,” the language of reach and grasp and gaze, the language of ownership (collective?), the language of accumulation, the library of orgies.

Stubbornly, 20 years after it fell out of fashion, I continue to question “we” and “our,” even as I use them, because I continue to find myself un-welcomed on page 27, or chapter 5, or on footnote 33, when a particular claim is staged. Invitations are endlessly rescinded in this “our” queer world.

At the end of heavy breathing
the dream deferred
is in a museum
under glass and guard.
It costs five dollars
to see it on display.—Essex Hemphill
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I register, here, what feels like a non-specific allergic reaction. I am itchy and red-eyed and sniffling, trying to figure out how the air in the service entrance can be so radically different from that in the grand parlor. Worrying about my still-naïve belief that the faint scent of stale smoke will be enough of a disguise.