Jo Bragg

Not straight: Queer and the troubling trap of language

In the introduction to their 2020 essay 'Why I Don’t Talk About ‘The Body’ - A Polemic', Gordon Hall opens with the assertion that “How we speak matters, because the language we use shapes how we understand the world” [1]. Providing this statement as an anchor, Hall goes on to question the popularity of the phrase ‘the body’ in ‘the world’ - or more to the point - ‘the body’ inside the microcosm of the English-speaking ‘artworld’.

Similar to Hall, my area of research in this arena is Gender and Queer theory. It’s a hollowed out passion at times - a feeling I will go on to explain in detail - that allows me to type the word Queer, again. Hall continues, the phrase ‘the body’ is, “a way of referencing bodies that do not belong to anyone in particular, but that have ceased to be multiple” [2]. Said another way, ‘the body’ is not plural, ‘the body’ does not concern itself with variety; with actual bodies. The term Queer, I will argue in this essay, totalises in much the same way.

My focus here is the responsibility for how the term Queer is being used, and therefore permitted to evolve. I often wonder, what does it mean for an entire floor talk, panel discussion, five day symposium or exhibition premise to be Queer? Do we know? Do we need to know? Is this question open for everyone to consider, or is it rhetorical? Either way, the veil of generality that Queer presents seems to be more like ‘the body’. As rhetoric, both are catchy and just vague enough to excuse assumptive readings. In practice, neither are at all straightforward. Having a body, or being Queer. Let alone both at the same time. This is harrowing work, not only to consider, but to do.

My main concern, is best expressed by asking: is Queer a label or a term? By this I mean, is Queer ‘about’ gender and sexuality? or is it about the power and danger presented by not conforming? I frame the question in this way, because of how often I witness the discursive weight of being Queer bent in favour of crude voyeurism, rather than a sincere attempt to shift power or alleviate the literal danger of being ‘out’.

By asking this question my objective is to establish that Queer is intentionally vague. Applying the work of notable theorists: Jack Halberstam and Lauren Berlant, I counteract any idea that the invasion of any person's physical or romantic choices is permissible. I challenge the term's current mode of circulation as if it is a fashion statement and address its overuse as an ill defined label. By noting these aspects of its current flourishing use, I highlight why it now - or at times, mostly online - looks more like a vapid or evaporative set of utopic ideals that emerged overnight, rather than what it is: ongoing socio-political action against injustice and inequality.

STUCK ON YOU

Queer is as stuck as straight is, or rather, Queer and straight are stuck together [3]. Each trapped inside the incredibly limiting hellscape-lexicon of the English language. Therefore, both are identity signifiers, ill-defined and ill-fitting labels all the same. The tools with which we foster connection to ourselves and make ourselves intelligible to others, are evidently ill equipped for the task. As much talk about a spectrum of gender identity and sexuality as there is, that very spectrum is trapped, or at least informed, by the Straight-Queer pendulum swing, or binary thinking and dualistic logic, if you prefer the typical wording. This ‘logic’ has a nightmarish feel, a kind of heavy punitive pressure, with a teasing ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ type of vibe. Queer is always the inverse of straight no matter where you occupy across the spectrum of gender identity or sexuality. Straight is the expected norm and on the other side Queer is, well, strange. Applying focus to these two words, exposes trouble that requires a closer look. To be clear, the trouble is that Queer, of course, has the not-so-insidious disadvantage of being an insult by design [4].

LABEL

The use of Queer as a powerful social barometer cannot be disposed of, no matter how repetitious or vague that use may be. I am, however, adamant that the term Queer has lost its spark. Diluted, sterilised and rendered impotent through overuse by galleries and artists alike. As Hall further explains, “how we talk transfers to others in the communities we participate in, and we take up the speech patterns of others, often without realising it” [5]. This patterned speech results in monotony and in turn, the vagueness of Queer. A vagueness that I am attempting to celebrate and find advantages for, rather than scrambling to “fix” with a definition.

I emphasise a turning away from definition, for the sake of Queer being able to proliferate without constraint. While I maintain that visibility is the foundation of Queer politics, I also afford Queer the right to remain vague, hidden and opaque. An approach I borrow from David Getsy, who writes it best: “Artists who identify their practices as queer today call forth utopian and dystopian alternatives to the ordinary, adopt outlaw stances, embrace criminality and opacity...much of the energy of these practices derives from the experience of oppression and prejudice” [6]. So, as far as I can tell, the main purpose of discussing Queer should be to recognise how and why it troubles corporate-patriarchy: the very real and very separate categories of sexual preference and gender binary identity [7]. So, let’s begin.

FAILURE AND CRUELTY

In 'The Queer Art of Failure' (2011), gender theorist Jack Halberstam states “while many Marxist scholars have dismissed queer politics as body politics”, he offers that, “alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination” [8]. While I maintain that this is true, in order to point to the trouble that this statement elucidates, I return to my concern about Queer being used as an ill defined label. Queer as a buzzword colludes with corporate domination, rather than being an antidote to it [9].

Here’s an anecdote, in an attempt to make my point salient. Growing up gay in rural Aotearoa through what I now look back on as the Glee-Gaga era of Gay Rights (2008-2010), I have seen this all before. American pop culture flooded me online and promoted ‘pride’: a tunnel vision of optimism which was far from the reality. In reality, the Same-Sex Marriage Bill only passed in Aotearoa in 2013 and when it did, I had no idea that it was still up for debate [10]. Three years later I flew to Hobart in Tasmania where this debate was taking place yet again. This time, I encountered the “It’s Okay to Say No” campaign funded by C4M: billboards boldly denouncing support of Same-Sex Marriage placed in sites of mass public use such as car parks and along motorways. A more contemporary example in this Elliot Page-LiL Nas X year of Queer Rights: conversion therapy has still not been nationally banned in either Aotearoa or so-called-Australia. I have to accept, given what I have seen, that the struggle against corporate domination is very real and that while “alternative forms of embodiment and desire as central” look good online or in a gallery, they are no substitute for real acceptance [11].

Point being, I am no longer so blindly optimistic. For every time I have believed things are going great in the world of Gay, Trans and Queer rights, I have also been sheltered by my own ability to believe in that: a form of fallacy encouraged by liberal-capitalism. Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls this phenomena Cruel Optimism: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing'' [12]. Berlant integrates cultural, affective, gender and trauma theory in order to make emphatic the point that politics are based on feelings first, before they are anything else. A series of strongly held beliefs that make the world feel safe, or safe enough, rather than being true [13]. The idea here is as follows: despite good evidence that liberal-capitalist society does not provide or support opportunity for every individual to “make it”, every individual is made to feel responsible if they “don’t”.

BODY PARTY

Bringing this back in line with Halberstam’s theory on Queer politics as presented in 'The Queer Art of Failure' (2011), I guess I can’t escape mention of Body politics. Body politics and Queer politics are attached, insofar as they both aim to fight patriarchy, ie: the right to access unbiased (gender affirming) healthcare or to have an abortion. I would argue, though, that as Body politics continues to work in these specific areas, Queer politics has slowly become less attached to ‘the body’ per se, in favour of something more attached to the deeply felt [14]. At least, this is the impression I get online, from seeing so much advocacy for LGBTQIA+ mental-health awareness.

The problem here is not the awareness raising itself, obviously. The problem is that Queer is not so much a subjective experience, but a collective one. Yet, Queer can’t mobilise itself collectively in any manner that counteracts corporate (or any other form of) domination when considered so deeply subjective. The trouble with elevating Queer to the status of an anomalous, ephemeral individual phenomenon presents itself when attempts are made to consider the Queer “community”. Under mechanisms of corporate domination the Queer “community” is represented inside a tokenised echo chamber, held back by a ‘sameness’ rhetoric: a ‘sameness’, that does not exist. So, if Queer is used as an ill defined label, everyone - under any form of domination, corporate or otherwise - will lose. When any marginalised group loses its polyphony of voices, everybody loses.

UNDER PRESSURE

On the flip side of the hilariously contradictory and arbitrary standards set by heterosexist ‘logic’, Queer is also handed the burden of leading its very own case study in gender theory and sexuality, while also, being undermined as just an aesthetic [15]. Queer as an aesthetic culture is a sophisticated series of both overt and discrete codes: of adornment, dress and gesture, which slip in and out of view dependent on the physical and emotional safety afforded to them. While there is no real continuity across what constitutes Queer in terms of form or expression, emphasis has been placed on what Queer ‘looks like’. This can be attributed to the fact that Queer was first leveraged as an insult, a derogatory label put in service of demonising femininity - with an emphasis on pointing out ‘effeminacy’ in gay men - in turn, promoting transmisogyny and denying, rather than celebrating, the existence of further diverse gender Queer identities. Queer, used in this way, surmises that if expected norms of gender are not conformed to, that this is indicative of a persons sexuality. Visibility, therefore, is it’s very own kind of trap: as the central site of Queer resistance is ‘visibility’, inside hetero-sexist straight logic, that very same ‘visibility’ is also devised to be feminine, or excessive: either dangerous or easily dismissible [16].

It is no coincidence that Queer is considered aesthetic and fashionable first. There is an undercurrent of moral and ethical magnitude behind who and what is considered ‘fake’. To be precise, if you are assumed to be ‘aesthetic’, there is an unfortunate subconscious correlation with being ‘fake’ and being automatically assumed ‘fake’ disqualifies you from being able to ‘tell the truth’. Queer is, in this way, underwritten and then written off as a form of fiction for its aesthetic astuteness [17]. This is nothing trivial due to the (very recent) history and ongoing persistence that Queer continues to be fetishised, demonised and pathologised. A history which runs deep alongside the perpetually uncertain future of life lived beyond, or without a straight roadmap.

CONCLUSION

In attempting to build a world of contrast in this essay, between the joy and darkness of a term that is now celebrated and still used to legitimise medical, social and political inequality [18]. I return to Hall's point that “how we speak matters, because the language we use shapes how we understand the world” [19]. For now, it’s simply best to reiterate that with patience and resilience Queer will inevitably escape its own dismissal as being considered just fashionable.

I will continue to leverage the intentional vagueness of Queer, in order to take the pressure off Queer people, artists and authors from having to justify the ‘why’ of who they are, and in order to diffuse expectations for one clear definition, or the volunteering of intimacies and physicalities as justification in its place. For now, I will end with a reminder that it is important that the term Queer be used wisely, and with a suggestion that it is actually pre-lingistic, but I’ll save that point of departure for another essay.


References:

[1] [2] [5] [19] Gordon Hall. 'Why I Don’t Talk About ‘The Body’: A Polemic'. Monday Journal, 2020.

[3] Jane Ward. 'The Tragedy of Heterosexuality'. NYU Press, 2020.
Monique Witting. 'The Straight Mind and Other Essays'. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

[4] The first recorded use of Queer as a derogotory label was in 1894.

[6] Getsy, David. 'Queer // Intolerability and its Attachments'. Document of contemporary art London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2016, 18.

[7] Similar to feminism, with its history of learning how to (re)shape itself, or rather, the history of feminisms refusal to (re)shape itself in order to (re)consider and take intersectionality and the inclusion of Queer people seriously. What I mean by building a comparison between the term feminism and the term Queer is to point out the obvious: neither are a monolith. There is diversification and disagreement about how each term services its cl/aims toward equality.
Butler, Judith. 'We Need to Rethink the Category of Women'. The Guardian, 2021.
Rosenberg, Jordy. 'Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day'. Avidly, 2014.

[8] [11] Jack Halberstam. 'The Queer Art of Failure'. Duke University Press. USA, 2011, 29.

[9] Hunter C.Thompson. 'Queer’ing Corporate Pride: Memory, Intersectionality, and Corporeality in Activist Assemblies of Resistance'. Syracuse University Dissertations Publishing, 2018.

[10] Not to mention being gay was only removed from the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders' (DSM) in 1973.

[12] Lauren Berlant. 'Cruel Optimism'. Duke University Press, 2011, 1.

[13] For a shorter explanation of Cruel Optimism see: Lauren Berlant, 'Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness, Supervalent thought', 2011. For expansion on these ideas see: Kathleen Stewart. 'Ordinary Affects'. Duke University Press, 2007.

[14] Alok Vaid-Menon. 'Beyond the gender binary'. Penguin, 2020.

[15] Huw Lemmey. 'Rising Camp - how an arch sensibility got political'. The Guardian, 2018.

[16] Barbara Creed. 'The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis'. London: Routledge, 1993.

[17] See 'Negotiating In/Visibility: The Political Economy of Lesbian Activism and Rights Advocacy' by Lynette Chua and Timothy Hildebrandt. For the Institute of Social Studies: The Hague, 2017.

[18] See Jennifer Terry, 'The Seductive Power of Science in the Making of Deviant Subjectivity', in 'Posthuman Bodies: Unnatural Acts', ed. Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

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Related to the exhibition Cruel Optimism: New Artists Show 2021
Published November 2021