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After Sex?: On Writing since Queer Theory

After Sex?: On Writing since Queer Theory

by Janet Halley

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Since queer theory originated in the early 1990s, its insights and modes of analysis have been taken up by scholars across the humanities and social sciences. In After Sex? prominent contributors to the development of queer studies offer personal reflections on the field’s history, accomplishments, potential, and limitations. They consider the purpose of


Since queer theory originated in the early 1990s, its insights and modes of analysis have been taken up by scholars across the humanities and social sciences. In After Sex? prominent contributors to the development of queer studies offer personal reflections on the field’s history, accomplishments, potential, and limitations. They consider the purpose of queer theory and the extent to which it is or is not defined by its engagement with sex and sexuality. For many of the contributors, a broad notion of sexuality is essential to queer thought. At the same time, some of them caution against creating an all-embracing idea of queerness, because it empties the term “queer” of meaning and assumes the universality of ideas developed in the North American academy. Some essays recall the political urgency of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when gay and lesbian activist and queer theory projects converged in response to the AIDS crisis. Other pieces exemplify more recent trends in queer critique, including the turn to affect and the debates surrounding the “antisocial thesis,” which associates queerness with the repudiation of heteronormative forms of belonging. Contributors discuss queer theory’s engagement with questions of transnationality and globalization, temporality and historical periodization. Meditating on the past and present of queer studies, After Sex? illuminates its future.

Contributors. Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Michael Cobb, Ann Cvetkovich, Lee Edelman, Richard Thompson Ford, Carla Freccero, Elizabeth Freeman, Jonathan Goldberg, Janet Halley, Neville Hoad, Joseph Litvak, Heather Love, Michael Lucey, Michael Moon, José Esteban Muñoz, Jeff Nunokawa, Andrew Parker, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Richard Rambuss, Erica Rand, Bethany Schneider, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Kate Thomas

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“At a moment when many had begun to worry that queer theory was becoming little more than a widespread litany of dogmas and slogans, this volume arrives as a wonderful surprise: not only because it reminds us what a contribution the varied intellectual currents grouped together under that rubric have been making—and for nearly twenty years now—to the renewal of our intellectual life; but also, and more importantly, because it shows to what a degree this theoretical effervescence lives on, and how powerfully productive it still is in all its characteristically marvelous variety.”—Didier Eribon, author of Insult and the Making of the Gay Self
Kalle Westerling

“[A]s the editors of the recent volume After sex? On writing since queer theory states: if it’s not dead, at least queer theory nowadays has a past…. Summarily, I would recommend the anthology to... scholars and doctoral students interested in where the debate is moving today.”
Forum for Modern Language Studies
“Together, the essays that make up this collection offer an engaging insight into the origins, development, expansiveness and potential problems of queer theory. After Sex? does not provide a straightforward, conclusive answer to its own ambiguous question, but then it would be somewhat queer – or, rather, unqueer – if it did.”
GLQ - Sylvia Mieszkowski
“[A] a kaleidoscopic collection that rotates around the personal-is-political-is-personal axis of denormativization. . . . Queer theory, in short, is alive and kicking. Having proliferated, branched out, and, so far, resisted ossification, it provides space for diversity and disagreement. Testifying to this, the contributions to After Sex? make an illuminating and, yes, entertaining read.”
Cultural Studies - Raechel Tiffe
“[T]he value of After Sex? resides in its unwavering commitment to show how the nuances of queer theory aid in making it a powerful form of scholarship and politics. And this motley crew of interdisciplinary scholars reflects the exact kind of bricolage that Cultural Studies argues is productive. More importantly, this book insists that troubling the lenses through which we see the world is imperative if scholars ever want to make sense of a conjuncture that is so complexly intersectional.”

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After Sex?



Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4909-9

Chapter One


MY WORK HAS BEEN mostly about advocating for queer's verbally and adjectivally unsettling force against claims for its definitional stability, so theoretically anything can queer something, and anything, given a certain odd twist, can become queer. I have wanted to preserve sexuality's importance to the notion of queer mostly because there are other quasi-concepts that convey the work of denormativization, broadly conceived, for other domains. Queer, to me, is the name of a certain unsettling in relation to heteronormativity. It can be thought of as, and is akin to, the "trace" in the field of sexuality. Thus créolité, hybridity, mestizaje, métissage, spectrality, the trace, and the uncanny all find themselves in certain ways allied with queer as terms that do the work of différance in relation to the identitarian inflections they carry, though each speaks to different discursive domains and targets specifically and differently inflected binaristic identitarian normativities.

Until sometime last year, I would have said that what most resisted queering in my field—let us call that field for the moment Renaissance studies—was a version of historicism and one of its corollaries, periodization, in European pre- and early modern sexuality studies. Some of the best practitioners of this historicist bent are David Halperin in How to Do the History of Homosexuality and Valerie Traub in The Renaissance of Lesbianism, with their insistence on the past's differences from the present in the arena of sexual and gender identity, even as they use present (or modern) models as benchmarks for evaluating—and striving to define—that past. Although historicism has a long and complex history as a disciplinary practice, the historicism I refer to here has to do more with the anti-anachronistic move that came to the fore acutely after John Boswell's work asserted the existence of "gay" people across vast spans of premodern time. His anachronistic move mirrored, to a degree, the related ethnocentric move of assimilating culturally different models of gender and/or same-sex desire so that it could be proven that alternative (nonbinaristic) gendering and same-sex sexuality were universal phenomena, the most controversial example of which was probably the assertion that what anthropologists called berdache was yet another form of gay identity recognizable to the modern West.

Johannes Fabian (Time and the Other) famously pointed out the relation between temporal and spatial alterities by noting that spatially distant cultural others are often scripted as "before" the West, from Western modernity's point of view. Postcolonial critics and scholars have conducted a sustained critique of the timelines of the West, not only to unsettle Western developmental teleologies that proceed from primitive elsewhere to modern "here," but also to articulate alternatives to the hegemonic pressure of a certain version of modernity and capitalist, globalizing transformations. In a related move, they have also sought to displace the centrality of Western European time and space as the measure of historical time (see, for example, Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, and, for modernity, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, and Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony). Meanwhile, interventions such as Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern approached the critique of Western modernity from within to demonstrate its nonmodernity to itself. And an important influence closer to the domain of sexuality on thinking temporality alternatively was (as with so many things) Michel Foucault, for the ways he argued that historical time was multiple and that multiple temporalities could be seen to coexist synchronically in any given historical formation.

In the field of sexuality studies, the space-time problem looked somewhat different but was related: the anachronists collapsed time by universalizing identity across time, while the ethnocentrists collapsed space by geographically universalizing a culturally specific model of "gay." The anthropological critique of this latter move focused on differences across geographic space and repudiated the identificatory logics of "we are everywhere" by refusing the existence of a recognizable "we" and concentrating instead on the effort to discern and define—as different and as culturally specific and contextualized—what seemed initially recognizable as identitarian resemblance. European-focused early modernists and premodernists, adopting and applying to time the anthropological critique that was launched against ethnocentric universalizing claims, asserted (as against the notion that "we have always been") that the past was different from the present and that presentist categories for past sexualities did not apply.

This altericist reaction was undoubtedly necessary insofar as it sought to enable analyses of gender and sexuality rather than foreclose them through a presumption that "we know whereof we speak," as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick puts it in Epistemology of the Closet. However, as a specialist in a period whose exceptionalist claims are notorious, I continue to worry that altericism is sometimes accompanied by an older, more familiar claim that periods—those confections of nineteenth-century disciplinarization in the West—are to be respected in their time- and context-bound specificity. This is the historicism I speak of, the one that, in the name of difference, smuggles in historical periodization in the spirit of making "empirical" claims about gender and sexuality in the European past. In a review of modern Euro-American New Historicist studies (from the eighteenth century on) relating to homoerotic identities and identifications, Susan McCabe has generously argued for the possibility of practicing a specifically queer historicism, a practice that would combine, strategically, the historicist necessity of charting, taxonomizing, or "excavating" sexual behaviors and experience with the recognition "that sexualities are socially constructed and can take multiple forms" and that "history is riddled by multiple desires," a practice she sums up as "a critical trend of locating 'identifications' (rather than identity), modes of being and having, in historical contexts."

Of course, European pre- and early modern critical work has, for quite some time, at least implicitly troubled periodization in its fully altericist and exceptionalist form, in spite of the historicizing impulses generated in the wake of New Historicism's call to reinsert history into theoretical and critical work regarded as having been too influenced by poststructuralist, mostly French, deconstructive critical theories. For along with New Historicism, cultural materialists and feminists explicitly politicized the motives for analyzing texts and did so with frankly presentist stakes. In my understanding, this is in part what gave rise to sexuality studies in its lesbian, gay, and queer orientations in the first place: desires in the present to prove the persistent existence of same-sex desires and communities over time, or desires to characterize modernity's relation to same-sex desires and communities as different from or similar to the past, thereby identifying the specificities of modernity's sexual regimes—in short, to intervene politically in the present by using the past. Foucault's notions of archeology and genealogy suggested ways of understanding present stakes in the past that left their imprint on the work of sexuality studies scholars, even as the latter were distracted, one might say, by Foucault's historical arguments regarding the appearance of identitarian formations around sexuality (the famous "acts versus identities" debate). From my perspective, some of the most innovative challenges to strict boundaries of periodization in the name of confronting present interests and stakes in European premodern studies from within the field appear in the work of feminist and queer medievalists, such as Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism, Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, L. O. Aranye Fradenburg's Sacrifice Your Love, and Karma Lochrie's Heterosyncrasies.

Inspired in part by the brief foray into these questions represented by the collection Fradenburg and I edited, Premodern Sexualities, my recent book, Queer/Early/Modern, set itself the task of critiquing historicisms and troubling periodization by rejecting a notion of empirical history and allowing fantasy and ideology an acknowledged place in the production of "fantasmatic" historiography as a way to get at how subjects live, not only their histories, but history itself, to the extent that history is lived through fantasy in the form of ideology. Scholars trained in psychoanalysis in addition to other disciplines and working within queer-theoretical frameworks have forged theories concerning the force of affect in history. Implicitly following through on the ways some of them call for or identify kinds of affect at work in archival and memorializing projects, I sought to theorize affect's persistence across time and its force as that which compels past-, present-, and future-directed desires and longings. I also sought to forge a kind of ethics of haunting that would motivate queer historiographic endeavor through the project of queering temporality. This haunting would be reciprocal in that it would entail a willingness both to be haunted and to become ghostly, and insofar as the reciprocal penetrability entailed would also be sensuous—a commingling of times as affective and erotic experience—it would also be queer.

Alongside postcolonial critiques of modernity, there has also been a "queering" of temporality from outside queer theory, a denormativization of temporality through its relation to desire, fantasy, wish, and the impossibility of sustaining linear narratives of teleological time, especially in relation to the hope of longs récits. Derrida's Specters of Marx, continuing a meditation on time begun long before his own work and in the wake of a certain "prophetic" Marxism (perhaps most importantly and poetically articulated in Walter Benjamin's writings on secular messianism), definitively threw a kind of time productively out of joint for those of us grasping for a way to rethink teleological histories and to explain our sense of being profoundly haunted by ethical imperatives that preceded us. I sought to extend this meditation specifically to queer historiography, relying on the critique that had been done to further spectrality's applicability to certain historical and historically "intimate" questions.

Now it seems to me that queer time is everywhere; the project of queering temporality is in full swing, with many publications and journal issues devoted to the topic. Queer postcolonial critics and theorists working at the convergence of transnational spatiotemporal dislocations are forging new discourses of queer time and space. Queer temporality can be understood to dislodge queer from its gossamer attachment to sexuality by thinking "queer" as a critique of (temporal) normativity tout court rather than sexual normativity specifically. But Elizabeth Freeman's call for alternative chronotopes ("Time Binds"), Madhavi Menon's arguments against narrative teleology ("Spurning Teleology"), and Lee Edelman's arguments against reproductive futurity (No Future) do a nice job of demonstrating how the queering of temporality, at least narrative temporality, is both related and not related to the specific thematics of sexuality. They identify progressive, and thus future-oriented, teleologies as aligned with heteronormative reproduction. Their proposed responses to normative, reproductive futurity—erotohistory, anachronism, and the death drive (a kind of antifuturity), respectively—invite us, I think, to continue to generate alternative temporal models that might be said to be queer. Queer spectrality—ghostly returns suffused with affective materiality that work through the ways trauma, mourning, and event are registered on the level of subjectivity and history—is what I regard as my own contribution to this effort. It takes the already deeply queered relation that a nonrationalizable historicity has to eventfulness (what I termed in my book "the not strictly eventful afterlife of trauma") and to the bearers of such potentially meaningful eventfulness (ghosts and angels, for example), and it proposes an ethics (another way to think "survival") that might, through remaining open to being haunted, do justice in responding to how we find ourselves impelled by demands that confound the temporalities we call past, present, and future.

However generative "queer" may be—and this is certainly what is either least or most capitalistically queer about queer, its breathtakingly rapid productive generativity—it isn't, it seems to me, the name for every wrenching that may occur, for every denormativizing project possible. I am not sure why one would want it to be, except for professional reasons related to the marketplace, whether of ideas or of jobs. If, in a given analysis, queer does not intersect with, touch, or list in the direction of sex—the catchall word that here refers to gender, desire, sexuality, and perhaps anatomy—it may be that queer is not the conceptual analytic most useful to what is being described. I understood one of deconstruction's projects to have been to find such terms, not quite concepts, from within the particular conceptual fields that were under scrutiny—an endeavor that has been creatively practiced in many theoretical fields related to but critical of identitarian projects, such as psychoanalysis, feminism, critiques of color, and varieties of postnationalism and postcolonialism—and I hope that this work will be continued and that "queer" will not swallow up everything with its insatiable appetites and marvelous elasticity.

Queer theory, queer critique, and queer critical studies have spent at least a decade and a half now scrutinizing the vagaries of identity and identification. These have been crucial sites to rework, as queer theory came to the fore precisely in order to challenge identitarian conceptualizations of gendered sexual being and belonging that sometimes also implicitly referred to socially hegemonic subject positions, marked only—in U.S. liberal humanist fashion—by the minoritizing designation of non-normative sexual orientation. Yet as we know from the many recent queer of color and queer diasporic critical interventions within queer theory, it too often left intact dominant liberal notions of the U.S. citizen-subject. But I think now the intersections and coarticulations of "queer" with other designators are very much at the forefront of the agenda. Likewise, the gendered implications of queering are producing ever-richer analytical work in the areas of intersex, transgender, and transsexual theorizing. Here too, it seems to me, the focus has been on identification and on critiques (or reinstatements) of identity.

One practice I want to argue for at this juncture, rather than an "after" of sex, is a return to questions of subjectivity and desire, to a postqueer theoretical critical analysis of subjectivity that brings together, rather than once again solidifying the divide between, psychoanalysis and other analytics and objects of study. Subjectivity, in its manifold singularity, continues problematically to trouble even queerly deconstructed identitarian and identificatory logics insofar as subjectivity relates only obliquely or metonymically, if at all, to totalizable bodies and agencies, binaristic systems of understanding, and humanist logics. While it is true that queer analyses focusing on identity and identification have also engaged with questions of subjectivity, I'd like to see the queer problematics of subjectivity and desire return to queer theorizing in more explicit ways that are not only confined to psychoanalysis and literature—their "proper" homes —but that also bring into relation desire and subjectivity with politics, sex, community, living, and dying. In some ways, this is what activist community and popular discourses of queer that circulate predominantly in nonscholarly venues more often set out to do. The interdisciplinarity that would consist of dismantling the barriers between the world considered as an object of social scientific study and the world considered as infused with passional attachment, fantasy, and wish is still to be achieved (and other ways of considering the world are still to be invented), though anthropology has done more, perhaps, than other disciplines to confront the interrelation of these dimensions, as has the work of scholar-critics who also understand themselves to be imaginative linguistic, "literary," or "poetic" world-crafters (what goes by the name of "creative writing" in academic departments). Some of what I am looking for is captured in the titles of Denise Riley's The Words of Selves and Impersonal Passion. Her work—and the status of such work as written and writerly, as self-consciously and frankly figural, is key I think—consistently demonstrates the inextricabilities of relations to the social with the desiring subjectivities that inhabit it through a practice of writing that undoes what is still so persistently, and often disavowedly, Cartesian about so much intellectual work, the separation of something like rational analytical thought from feeling. In different ways, Leo Bersani, Ann Cvetkovich, Freeman, Elizabeth Grosz, David Marriott, and Sedgwick have been working along this edge, focusing on desire's resistances, affect's insistences, and the problem of Cartesian models in our "worldings." Such a practice, which would be, in my view, a queering of the so-called human sciences in their institutionalized and disciplinary forms, would be sex infused because explicitly suffused with a nonrepressed corporeality. As I understand it—and where my hopes and wishes lie—this would be a challenge to engage in risky intersubjective collectivity and imagine other ways to be, to live, and to fashion worlds.


Excerpted from After Sex? Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Janet Halley is the Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is the author of Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism and Don’t: A Reader’s Guide to the Military’s Anti-Gay Policy, also published by Duke University Press.

Andrew Parker is Professor of English at Amherst College and the editor of Jacques Rancière’s The Philosopher and His Poor, also published by Duke University Press.

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