Friday, August 18, 2006

Theory and Queers

My first response to seeing the reading list for Theory and Queers, a graduate Women's Studies class at the University of Maryland, was horror and disbelief. I emailed by friend, Kim, from my Women's Studies undergraduate days at Michigan,
You know, I saw all of that theory stuff and I just wanted to run away. The professor sent a copy of a chapter from Haraway's new book and I lost my nerve for a moment. I thought, there is no way I can do a graduate degree. Ever. I don't dig all of this theory. I can't do this for fun and fancy. I can't do this for money. I have to do something more practical, something that has some real world application. Then I read the Haraway chapter (I think it is Haraway, by the way, but it could be another theory freak, with apologies to you as one). It is about how she is doing agility training with her dog. I kid you not, part of this class is about canine companionship. (And yeah, I just checked the web, it's Haraway). So I was reading this morning. It's  a good article. And I thought, hey, I have a dog. I'm white. I'm a woman. I can do this. There is no way that I am going to be intimidated by some chick in California who just spent three thousand dollars traveling with and training her dog. I mean that is bunk, but it is not bunk that is going to intimidate me out of the PhD. So I got my nerve back.
I still don't know if I am going to stay in the class; it's a complex calculus of what to take and maintain my job performance and make sure I get the requirements satisfied for the degree AND make sure that I am doing things that are intellectually stimulating and fulfilling my larger intellectual goals. Then this post to the class blog:
How do queers do the personal? When is coming out queer? When isn't it?

When did "the personal is political" become essentialist?

When did "coming out" become old gay?

Or are they? Or where are they? Or for whom are they?

Or do "the personal is political" and "coming out" stay vital, and with new meanings?

If so, how?

Or are there better ways to talk about this category of political issues?

These questions are completely in line with the things that I am thinking about, with the things that wake me up in the morning and haunt my dreams at night.

When is coming out queer?

I think that coming out is queer when it involves two or more people of the same sex and those people are in some state of undress - full or partial, I'm not dogmatic about this - and they is desire between them and there is an erotic spark and there is the shared willingness to touch and feel and suck together until these actions lead inexorably to orgasm, together or separately, as I've said, I'm not dogmatic.

When isn't it?

I've heard a lot of people talk about the coming out moment when something unknown about someone that is different from the norm or mainstream is revealed. I don't think that is coming out. Is this traditional? Is it essentialist? I think that coming out is when you tell someone I'm a queer/dyke/gay/biamorous/lesbian/lesbo/queebo and that person that you are speaking to immediately thinks about what it is that you like to do with your fingers, your tongue, your mouth, your mind and s/he knows that this is about sex. What I am talking about is sex. It isn't coming out if it doesn't involve this erotic desire. Yes, I'm sympathetic to the other coming out moments, the times when our identity or behavior transgress the normative culture, but I'm not convinced that is coming out. I'm not yet ready to relinquish that word for broader consumption. Isn't that the dominant paradigm? The oppressed develop some strategy to survive to have it coopted by the oppressor? Am I revealing my feminist hand?

When did "the personal is political" become essentialist?

Did it? Or was it always essentialist? I think that the entire feminist notion of the personal as political reflects the loss of a Marxist analysis in which are bodies are tools of the capitalist system. It formed the intellectual foundation for the "Mommy Wars," the falsely dichotomized construction of the female body, the female life torn between parenthood, motherhood, and work. We need to do both. Or at least we need to do one. Not reproduce, though that is being compelled more and more, not chosen, compelled, but still some, like me, can refuse, but we cannot, without the familial history of privilege, refuse to work, to make money. Saying the personal is the political denuded the political perpetuating our female isolation with a feminist theory, equally isolating. Was it essentialist though? That I don't know. Did it become essentialist? It could have been expanded to validate all personal experience, but we cannot rely on that filter alone. There are things we cannot experience. Things we do not experience. Things we must observe and learn from others. Does that make it personal? No. It is still political. We can understand it through that filter of social constructionism, but really I don't have the time to rehash this debate, this theoretical opposition once more. Fifteen years later, I have this mish-mash of experience, observed, lived, analyzed. I'm an essentialist. A social constructionist. A separatist. A realist. An optimist. I'm defying the categories that are reified.

When did "coming out" become old gay?

When did gays become old? Sometimes I wake up and I see my nipple which was once so pink, so translucent, almost gossamer, and it is wrinkled and old and tired. Only I am not old. So what is "old gay." The dykes and fags from Stonewall? It happened before I was bore (barely), is that old gay? What about Del and Phyllis in the butch-femme bars of yore. Old gay? Old dyke? Or is old gay the coming out celebrations we had in Detroit in the early 1990s which filled people with pride and power? I remember them fondly though now I reject them. Personal action when what we need is collective, communal action to solve societal problems. Or is that just the rhetoric of an old socialist? Could I be old? Could I be a socialist?

Or are they? Or where are they? Or for whom are they?

The nominative pronoun in the final question makes me swoon. Is that like coming out as a grammarian? As a person who believes that language matters when written, even on the web? Who is they, though from the first question? I like it because it rhymes with gay, but I am lost in the language, which has detached from the meaning. Perhaps that is the point, a point which I must resist because this theory, for this queer, must root itself in action that delivers a vision and a pragmatic plan for a future without oppression. Call me a feminist/activist/essentialist/pragmatist. I dare you.

Or do "the personal is political" and "coming out" stay vital, and with new meanings?

A year ago I saw a young woman on the train reading Rubyfruit Jungle. She was probably nineteen, the age I was when I first read it. The other day someone online was talking about Oranges, as in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. She had just read it. I don't know how old she is. She was so happy. So happy to find those books with those lesbian characters. They are still vital. Perhaps they still have the old meanings. The same meanings that they had to me when I first discovered them. Perhaps they have new meanings. Either way, they are vital to those women at that moment. Perhaps "the personal is political" is anachronistic. Perhaps it is like the postcard I still have in a collage from the late 1980s that says, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." Perhaps I reject coming out as the personalization of our problems, which Betty Friedan, no matter how many vile things she said about lesbians, rejected with that book of hers in the early 1960s. I can do that, but there are still generations of us who will tell stories: when I first was coming out to myself, when I told my parents, when I came out, came out, came out. We know the moment and we mark it. How can that not have meaning?

If so, how?

Is how the way forward? Is describing how we keep something vital, how we imbue it with new meaning our way of describing a future? I cannot see it. I'd like to. I try to. Sometimes. Really, though, how it happens, how it will happen, is yet to unfold in the lives and minds and words of the queers around us now, the queers that will live in this mythical future. We'll describe what they did. We'll theorize ex post facto. They will do it though. It will be beautiful. It will have a name and a slogan and a movement and a feeling. We will write a book. They will live it.

Or are there better ways to talk about this category of political issues?

There is always a better way. I believe that. I said earlier I was an optimist. I think perhaps that reveals my nationality; the culture in which I am surrounded. We Americans. I hate to say that. I don't accept the magnetic flags on our minivans; the yellow ribbons make me angry, but still, I am an American. I say, we Americans, we believe in progress. That something better is down the road. A new solution. New technology. New ideas. They will help us. They will make our great society great. So yes, there is a better way to talk about this category of political issues. I just don't know what the category is. I do know that it is about me, my body, my life, my sex, my wife. Coming out is what happens between the sheets. Bedsheets. Paper sheets.

How do queers do the personal?

I do the personal by self-examination. It is what I learned from feminism. Mine the personal first. Politicize from my own experience, from my own body. As a frame it has some limitations, but they are the limitations that I can see and understand. Even after the sex wars. Amid racism and capitalism and colonization and homophobia and heterosexism, there is feminism. My person. My body. My life. How do I do the personal? Each day I wake up in this body, with this life. The former was not chosen; the later is chosen daily. Moment by moment I struggle with words, with ideas, with justice. This is personal. I wake up; I live in this body. I can tell you the first day I came out to myself. The first time I came out to another person. The first time I fucked. The first time I made love. The first kiss. The last kiss. The last orgasm. The last moment of intimacy. This is personal.


2 comments:

Jo said...

Julie Enszer you are one brilliant, thoughtful woman who can out theorize any PhD in the pond and don't you ever forget it!

On the personal is political: while we were validating our existance as women in our many, many roles (for me back there in the late 60's and early 70's--to ourselves, each othr and the powers that be--I believe we were also touching a core of life. For to become aware--self-aware--of our personal life is to become politicized to the lives around us--to break from isolation--and join together to look at our collective lives. That is to me the beginning of social change. It always starts with the personal on some level.

Today, with all of the ways we can be manipulated to be distracted from personal reflection --shopping --collecting-- TV--created crisis after crisis--to me this theory and practice of the personal is political is more important than ever.

Be well my friend.

Julie R. Enszer said...

Yes, yes, dear Jo. I don't think that this is the first time that I have critiqued the personal that you have reminded me of how powerful it is. You are exactly right. There is something about personal experience, which arrived at through reflection and then politicized that contains great power. My recent experience in this personal reflection has been traveling to other countries and being able to see more deeply how the filter of physical location and nationalism affect us.

Vacation is wonderful. Right now we are in Lake Placid and it is indeed placid. Kim especially is thankful for this time away.