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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts on Developing Anarchist Queer Theory(2010)

Thoughts on Developing Anarchist Queer Theory
by Phil
From Pink and Black Attack #5
“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender... identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”
- Judith Butler

In the past two decades, queer theory has developed as an academic pursuit and gained considerable acceptance within the realm of higher education. While some of the concepts from this branch of study have trickled into radical queer thought, it has largely remained a strictly academic pursuit. I believe that queer theory can be useful, but it must be expanded to be accessible to those outside of academia. Furthermore, problematic tendencies within queer theory should be addressed, and it is my contention that the development of an explicitly anarchist queer theory would be beneficial. In this essay, I hope to lay out a basic explanation of queer theory, a critique of the current state of queer theory, and propose a basic framework for developing anarchist queer theory. Ultimately, I seek to open up a discussion within the queer anarchist community on building anarchist queer theory. Far from being the last word on the subject, I hope that this piece instead generates discussion and further writing and conversations.

Queer Theory
Queer theory is one of the latest currents of critical theory to gain widespread academic acceptance. It developed out of the field of Gay and Lesbian Studies, itself a product of the period that saw the birth of interdisciplinary studies programs such as Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies. However, queer theory takes a radically different approach to identity than other theories about identity. Unlike most other identity-based studies, and even in contrast to some queer studies, queer theory specifically seeks to question the idea of identity itself.

One concept that is central to the project of queer theory is the essentialism vs. social construction debate. The essentialist perspective relies on the argument that identities are inherent and fixed. For example, an essentialist position would argue that the binary of man/woman is legitimate, that those identities are natural and that the differences between them are likewise natural. Social construction, on the other hand, argues that identity has no basis in nature and is constructed entirely by social forces and discourse. While essentialism takes as its starting point a fixed identity and then analyzes how society as a whole impacts and is impacted by people with that identity, social construction argues against the fixed identity, claiming instead that identity is continually constructed and reconstructed by social forces.

Perhaps the best known queer theorist is Judith Butler, a professor at Berkeley. Her book Gender Trouble has achieved some degree of success unusual for an academic text. Due to the popularity of her work, Butler is a large influence on queer theory. One of her major contributions is the idea of gender performativity. For Butler, gender is a collective fiction that consists of the aggregated performances of individuals. People act according to this fiction to perform their gender. Individuals are punished for acting contrary to this fiction, either by law or by social norms. Butler also counters the traditional understanding of sex as biological and gender as social by arguing that outside of gender, sex has no meaning and is thus equally socially constructed.
Queer theory can thus be seen as a deconstruction of identity itself, specifically in the case of sex and gender but with broader implications. However, these broader implications are often lost because of the degree to which queer theory is an academic pursuit, with all the disadvantages that come with this status. Notably, the language used by many theorists is very inaccessible, and the works themselves are difficult to find. Queer theory also tends towards elitism, precisely because there is little chance to study or theorize outside specific academic contexts. I do not believe that we ought to discard queer theory, however; instead I hope to see queer theory break out of the academy with its lessons and debates becoming a part of general discourse.

Queer theory brings a critical approach to questions of gender and sexuality, as well as identity in a broader sense. However, as theory it is not explicitly anarchist. Given that my aim is to offer a framework for anarchist queer theory, I wish to make clear the operating principles of anarchism that I will be basing my framework on. What follows is not a final definition of anarchism, nor is it an attempt at one. Instead, I will give a basic explanation of anarchism in order to provide a basis for the rest of this essay.

Anarchism aims for the abolition of hierarchy and authority, placing anarchists against the state, against capitalism, and against social oppression. While all three systems act in different (yet overwhelmingly complementary) ways, queer theory is relevant to anarchist critique of each. State power, for example, regulates and criminalizes various identities. Capitalism represents a force that, by its nature, seeks to commodify human relationships and identities. Capital also plays a central role in the ideology of the family, which has become central to mainstream political debate. Social oppression is abundant, with extralegal violence against queer people common, as well as discrimination and general intolerance.

This is admittedly a very basic description of anarchism, and in no way represents the breadth or depth of anarchist analysis. However, a more detailed explanation would require venturing into debates that are well beyond the scope of this essay. Resources are widely available for those desiring more information about anarchist thought and anarchist theory.

Identity and Identity Politics
Queer theory, as mentioned above, is critical of traditional notions of identity, and seeks to deconstruct the processes by which identity is constructed. The conflict of anti-assimilationist queer thought against assimilationist LGBT politics is a shining example of the relevance of queer theory. Assimilationism, in a queer context, is represented by the campaigns of mainstream, reformist organizations. Issues such as gay marriage, ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and advocating for hate crime laws are at the top of the LGBT agenda, according to groups such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Marriage Equality USA. This, along with cultural assimilation in the form of corporate-sponsored Pride parades, demonstrates a commitment to embracing the statist logic of citizenship and rights, as well as the capitalist commodification of culture. Assimilationism, then, seeks integration into capitalism and state power in exchange for being loyal subjects. The LGBT movement is thus, on the whole, an assimilationist effort.

The anti-assimilationist critique of the LGBT movement begins with the difference in terminology. The term LGBT is fundamentally about establishing a fixed identity for representational purposes. This is evident even in its historical progression from lesbian and gay, then adding bisexuality, and finally adding trans to the acronym. Each of these additions was met with resistance by the gay establishment, demonstrating the exclusionary nature of the term. Queer, on the other hand, is a purposefully ambiguous term that was reclaimed as a positive description instead of the slur that it used to be.

As indicated by the terminology, the LGBT movement seeks to construct a coalition of defined identities in order to participate fully in the political process. This requires identities whose definition can be counted on to remain stable, in order to give rights or take them away. Queer theory consciously rejects the idea of fixed identities, with queer itself being a term that deliberately provides no stable identity. Thus, queer liberation has little to do with the LGBT movement’s goal of assimilation and their narrow identity politics.

Towards anarchist queer theory
Queer theory, as an academic pursuit, has followed a different trajectory than other academic studies based on identity (ethnic studies, women’s studies, among others) in that queer theory developed in the academy, rather than developing out of mass struggle. Because of this, queer theory has largely remained in the academy instead of spreading into the general population. However, the confinement of queer theory to the ivory tower is not total. Indeed, within anarchist circles certain concepts have become fairly popular. The prime example of this is the notion of genderqueer and the larger critique of the gender binary. Drawing from Butler’s theory of performativity, being genderqueer indicates a refusal of the traditional male/female dichotomy, as gender is constructed according to one’s individual desire.

However, there are also aspects of queer theory that deserve a critical examination, and lead to further questions. One such aspect is the individualism of performativity, as it mainly analyzes an individual’s gender identity in relation to the collective fiction of gender that is imposed. The question that is then prompted is, if gender is a collective fiction used to control people, then how do we as anarchists abolish this tool of domination? Is an individual-based approach enough, or is collective action required?

Another issue is the essentialism vs. social construction dichotomy, which has become oversimplified. While the philosophical basis of essentialism is clearly problematic, does that mean analysis using fixed categories is equally problematic? Can the state be seen as an essentializing force, with queer theory then analyzing the relation of those essentialized to the state and simultaneously seeking to subvert the very process of essentialization?

I hope to see the development of anarchist queer theory to discuss these questions, among others. While there are inherent challenges to this project, given the academic nature of queer theory, such theory has much to offer anarchist theory and practice. Indeed, even in the limited ways that it has already reached anarchist thought, it has proven liberating and useful. I hope that this essay serves as a starting point for further discussion and debate around the topic.

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