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Queer theory is a loosely defined interdisciplinary set of critiques and perspectives which call into question those political, cultural, and social forces which traditionally naturalized categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. Queer theory often defines its position as existing in contrast to studies of ”gay and lesbian” history or politics in that it emphasizes the non-assimilating aspect of queerness into such normalizing categories. While gay and lesbian studies theorists emphasize the need for a history of gay and lesbian lives, queer theory points to those lives and experiences which fail to fit these very categories, pointing to the cultural and historical specificity of such formations of gender and sexuality. Grounded in such accounts of the experience of being queer – of not fitting the available categories of sexual orientation – queer theory takes these subject positions seriously and theorizes from such a perspective. This allows queer theory to turn back upon the social field critically in order to attempt to expose the social forces which have organized knowledge practices such that equate heterosexuality with human nature.
Drawing from the social constructionist approach of feminist and post-structural critiques, queer theory has argued against the innate ”naturalness” of heterosexuality. Queer theory criticizes the heterosexual/homosexual binary and the way it can exercise power to obscure those sexual experiences and identities which do not easily fit these categories. Instead of asking the proper categories which should organize sexuality, queer theory is critical of these very formations, tying them to the exercise of disciplinary, subjectivizing power. In this account, both homosexuality and hetero-sexuality are seen as socially constructed and produced by similar linguistic categories of power-knowledge formations. Michel Foucault’s account (1978: The History of Sexuality, vol. 1) of the productive power of discourse has been a strong foundation of queer theory, offering both a means of understanding the social and historical specificity of the knowledge categories of sexual orientation and also the use of sexual orientation to normalize the population. Building on Foucault, theorist Judith Butler (1997) argues that one’s sexual orientation becomes intelligible through the enactment of these categories on the body, and that their repetition is what gives them stability or power, that which makes them intelligible. Bodies ”come to matter” when they fit these formations. The repetition of normative categories asserts their power and dominance. Materiality does not exist prior to epistemology, unmarked. The categories of sexual difference, are, therefore, not natural representations of material or scientific fact, but socially constructed formations of power-knowledge.
Queer theorists have been openly critical of gay and lesbian mainstream politics that seeks rights and acceptance through discourses of ”normality.” Such positioning both fails to recognize the exercise of power-knowledge through categories of normal and pathological, the same discursive structures which produced queer as a kind of perversion in history, and also reessentializes the category of LGBT as stable and fixed. Michael Warner (1999: The Trouble with Normal) for example, has offered a critique of the cultural forces, pressures, discourses, and productions that have lead to the exercise of power through the normalization of heterosexuality (heteronormativity) and the related homosexual discourse of normality (homonormativity). In fact, whereas mainstream gay and lesbian politics seek equal rights and increased visibility, in contrast queer theory often embraces, celebrates, and theorizes its own invisibility. This is especially present in studies of queers in environments that are more distant from the reach of this emerging western homonormative rights-driven discourse.
Recent queer theory has moved farther and farther from identity politics toward problematizing the boundaries of queerness beyond its original connection to sexual orientation or gender, applying a queer analysis to not only boundaries of sexual orientation and identity, but to the boundaries between bodies, selves, and affect. The critique of borders and boundaries of queer theory has influenced other intellectual currents of thought, such as post-humanism and technology studies. Most recently, scholars have imported the ”affective turn” (Clough 2007), a focus on the body’s capacity to affect and be affected, with an emphasizing how queer organizes the body’s felt sensations. Others have illustrated that queerness is intricately tied together with discourses and relations of race and disability.
- Butler, J. (1997) Critically queer. In: Phelan, S. (ed.), Playing With Fire. Routledge, New York, pp. 11-30.
- Clough, P. T. & Halley, J. (eds.) (2007) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, and London.
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