Queer Theory and Its Aftermaths - Wendy Pearson
Beginning in the early 1990s and in part inspired by the AIDS crisis of the period, queer theory developed approaches to the study of sexuality and gender which departed from approaches within gay and lesbian studies by embracing postmodernist and feminist theory. Rather than concentrating on understanding homosexuality, its origins, characteristics, culture, history and place in the world, queer theory postulated that all of our contemporary understandings of sexuality were influenced by a Cartesian epistemology of gender, the discursive centrality of the homo/hetero binary to contemporary identities, and the effect of regimes of normativity on everything from subjectivity to the politics of civil rights. Queer theory made many gay and lesbian-identified people (including scholars) uneasy because it questioned the naturalness and necessity of understanding people as categorically homosexual or heterosexual. By identifying all sexual identities as cultural constructs, queer theory was seen by some of its opponents — as is so often the accusation against postmodernist theories more generally — as pulling the rug out from under hard-won identities, devaluing histories based on essentialist notions of sexuality, and making more difficult the work of human rights-based LGBT organizations.
Almost two decades later, we can ask how queer theory has developed since its momentous but fraught inception. As Michael O’Rourke points out, “almost since it began we have been hearing about the death of Queer Theory.” However, like postmodernism, deconstruction, and other theoretical approaches whose “death” is frequently bruited about, queer theory’s obituary appears to be somewhat premature. Rather than being assimilated or destroyed by its fashionable edginess, queer theory seems instead to be responding to Michel Foucault’s call to “think thought itself differently.” On the one hand, early queer theorists, like Judith Butler, Michael Warner and Lee Edelman, have become deeply engaged with world politics while, at the same time, newer theorists have emerged for whom an emphasis on Euro-American texts was never a priority: writers like Sara Ahmed, Gayatri Gopinath, Martin Manalansan, José Esteban Muñoz, JasbirK.
Puar and Ruth Vanita have engaged with queer theory from a variety of cultural perspectives. As well as addressing questions of intersectionality (with race, ethnicity, class, etc.), contemporary queer theory has diversified into such areas as queer phenomenology; the critique of homonormativity; the study of queer kinship, queer families and the queer child; queer liberalism; queer critiques of war and/on terrorism; queer globalization and queer diasporas; human rights; and responses to discourses of citizenship, migration and asylum-seeking. In this
course, we will examine a number of these recent turns in queer theory in order to evaluate both its current status and its continued usefulness.
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