Queer Theory: Answering some Prejudices

Esther Hutfless

After attending a psychoanalytic lecture focusing on gender-identities and sexual orientations and following the discussions there, I am forced to deal with the prejudices concerning the term queer and the topic of gender and sexual identity that obviously circulate in psychoanalytic discourses. There are many prejudices in psychoanalysis against Queer Theory and Gender Studies that are the result of a wrong and simplified understanding of these perceptions and that therefore lead to the ongoing discrimination of people who do not identify conforming to heteronormative gender-dichotomies.

Prejudice Nr. 1:
Queer Theory is an ideology which claims that everybody is perfectly free to choose his_her sex and gender and can, in the worst case, identify him_herself differently every day. One refers to German Facebook with its 60 varieties of possible gender-identities that could be chosen and the “confusing” constellations of identifications and desires concerning trans-people.

Prejudice Nr. 2:
Queer Theory and the term queer serve the neoliberal capitalist system. Due to individualization and differentiation propagated by Queer Theory, new groups of consumers would be continuously produced. Queer, therefore, is an element of neoliberal lifestyle.

Prejudice Nr. 3:
Queer represents – similar to what Michel Foucault stated for the sexual revolution of the 60s – no progressive or subversive discourse but is in the service of conservative movements.

Prejudice Nr. 4:
Queer and in consequence the wish to deconstruct the dichotomy man/woman is linked to a narcissistic feeling of omnipotence.

Prejudice Nr. 5:
Gender Studies and Queer Theory would have led to the displacement of the discourses on sexuality; currently it is all about identification and gender-identity.

I would like to contrast these common prejudices with my understanding of queer, but first I want to point out that there is not only one Queer Theory but a plurality of perceptions which are divers and manifold. First I do not agree that Queer Theory would have eliminated sexuality from the discourse, on the contrary it is my impression that Queer Theory has reintegrated sexuality into the gender-discourses, because gender-identity and lived sexuality are imagined as being intertwined within queer perceptions. [1]

Understanding Queer Theory as an undifferentiated discourse that is totally arbitrary and shallow is the result of widely disregarding a broad and vivid research field. In an article that was published together with Elisabeth Schäfer we understand queer in the following sense:
“Queer first describes an orientation which does not correspond to norms, which suspends traditional representations without founding them new. As an attribute of gendered forms of expression and sexual orientations, queer is no monolithic signifier. Queer leaves itself open, it remains fluid and dynamic. This marks its force. At the same time its openness endangers queer to be misused by monolithic and heteronormative mainstream discourses. Due to this, we insist that queer is not arbitrary and in any order.” [2]

The simple but challenging fact that the term queer keeps itself open does in no sense mean that it might be applicable in an arbitrary way. The fact that queer has the ability to signify differing subjects, respectively the fact that queer can be adopted and appropriated by differing subjects, does not mean that these subjects lack identity or coherence – something that is very often insinuated by psychoanalysts.
At the same time it is beyond doubt that there are some problematic appropriations or misuses of queer that are used to stabilize one´s own fragile subject position – in a clinical psychoanalytic setting these misuses have to be critically challenged. In an analytic setting feelings of omnipotence may appear; they also may appear in any subject; to assert them to all “queers” goes hand in hand with pathologizing queers in general.

Nevertheless, it seems indispensable to me to preserve the term queer in its multiplicity, to let it grow, roam and migrate, instead of fixing it monolithically or freezing it. This enables us to use the term politically beyond any identity-discourses.
If we think about the psychic genesis of subjects, it is also important to think of identification. At the same time, within psychoanalysis there are also critical considerations of identification, for example concerning mass-psychology. I think that further examinations of the various aspects of identification are necessary to further clarify how queer could be integrated into psychodynamic approaches of development and into psychoanalytic perceptions of subjectivity, without rejecting queer as being pathologic.
I therefore think that it is theoretically important to differentiate between the term queer and a subject that signifies itself as queer. At the same time discourse/language and subjects are intertwined; subjects are produced through language, discourse and significations: this constitutes the force of queer to transform and shift societal orders. Against the prejudice of queer being arbitrary one can also refer to queer as a political and performative practice of resignifying the abjection of homosexuality into “defiance and legitimacy”[3]. In this respect, queer re-scribes history and makes positive affirmations of new meanings possible both in the present and the future. Queer also means that differences must no longer be incorporated following negative and depreciating ascriptions but can be unfolded by exploring one´s own desire.

Of course “openness” endangers queer to being misused by identity-discourses, which again produces exclusions, inclusions and disavowals. These tendencies are continuously criticized by queer-theorists. Right-wing discourses try to exploit LGBTIQs in the name of the freedom of the western culture and sometimes these attempts are paradoxically successful. Minorities can often easily be brought in position against each other and can easily be politically instrumentalized. But this has nothing to do with an assumed weakness of the term queer, but rather with a weakness of a subject that seeks to identify and does not hesitate to have blood on his_her own hands – as history teaches us again and again.

Concerning the allegation that queer is part of the neoliberal lifestyle respectively that queer serves the capitalist system: this allegation misses the point. According to Alain Badiou, capitalism demands countability and availability. Everything that cannot be counted or is not available cannot be commercialized by the capitalist system. It is true that capitalism has the power to produce countability and availability by creating more and new identities/minorities. But these identities/minorities have to be identifiable, stable, fixed and solidified to serve capitalism. Neoliberalism/Capitalism transforms minorities/singularities into identities. Capitalism only de-territorializes with the goal of producing more and more new territorial identities.[4] This is exactly what queer is radically questioning, and for this reason queer is also radically criticizing identity-discourses within the gay- and lesbian-movement.
Queer in my understanding implies de-territorialization without re-territorialization, it represents a radical unavailability. Queer is a movement of elusiveness.

By the way, it must be noted that alternative self-definitions beyond the man/woman-duality are not just a product of neoliberal discourses but have always circulated and constantly developed and changed within queer subcultures. In this regard I would like to mention Butch or KV that do not indicate simply a sexual orientation but refer also to a gender identity beyond man and woman. Jack Halberstam has dealt with alternative practices and identifications within queer subcultures in her book “Female Masculinity”. Alternative, non-conforming identities are no new or postmodern phenomenon and they are definitely not a simple neoliberal product.

The question if and to what extent queer could be a problematic and regulating dispositive in Foucault’s sense cannot be answered from the current perspective. We always need to have in mind how the concern of queer to question identities critically, to deconstruct them, to keep them open and fluid may succeed.

[1] See for example Eve Kosovsky Sedgwicks perception of gender identity that is always bound to sexual practices. die Geschlechtsidentität in ihrer Komplexität immer schon an die sexuelle Praxis gebunden. Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick: Tendencies. Duke University Press, Durham 1993, p. 7.
[2] Esther Hutfless und Elisabeth Schäfer: Die Transience des Lebendigen denken / eine queere Philosophie versprechen. In: Sublin/mes. philosophieren von unten. A queer reviewed Journal. Heft #1, Wien 2012, S 16. The english version of this text is published online: https://www.academia.edu/10600314/Hutlfess_and_Sch%C3%A4fer_Thinking_the_Transience_of_the_Living_Promising_a_Queer_Philosophy_english_version_
[3] Judith Bulter: Bodes that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Routledge, New York 1993, p. 21.
[4] Alain Badiou: Saint Paul – The Foundation of Universalism. Stanford University Press, Stanford 2003, p. 10.