A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Jargon and Obscurantism

The apparent unintelligibility of queer theory is often apologized for as being just another example of the difficult concepts and language necessarily employed by high-level abstract thought. For example, one member of the QSTUDIES LIST wrote: "There is a tendency among theorists of all stripes to get lost in the meta-discussion. Levying this criticsm specifically at Queer theorists is misdirected." Another contributor wrote: "You don't have to be anti-theory, though, to be critical of theory that is unnecessarily opaque and jargonistic." Another wrote: "The suggestion was made that work be done to "translate" queer theory, bringing it out of academese, and I applaud that effort because it will help some queer kid out there make sense of hir/his/her situation." And another wrote: "If [Daniel Harris, who perpetrated a hoax on the List] wanted to critique "queer theory" for using complicated terms in order to confuse, he might have constructed a more insightful article around exploring the issues that were to arise in attempting to translate queer theory into a more accessible vocabulary."

I sympathize with any plea for greater clarity, but I wonder if abstraction per se accurately characterizes the nature of queer-theoretical discourse. It seems to me that there is a marked difference between the analytic tradition of traditional philosophy and the "theoretic" stance of postmodern queer discourse. High-level books on philosophy, economics, and sociology often are indeed rarefied, and do often use jargon. But they also take great care to define their terms as precisely as possible. Many of the specialist terms that they use — e.g. instantiation or explanandum — can usually be found in a decent dictionary, and usually are used in the way precisely defined in the dictionary. Strictly speaking, philosophical discourse tends to be difficult rather than unintelligible.

Such is often not the case with queer theory discourse. Postmodern queer theory discourse is full of terms that mean nearly the opposite of what they ordinarily mean (for example "genealogical" in Foucault's non-genealogical sense; or "the imaginary" in Lacan's non-imaginary sense), and very frequently the specialized use of such seemingly ordinary words is left undefined, or the source being used is not mentioned. The problem of jargon is especially difficult in queer theory not because we have never heard of the words before, but because many of the words are common but the way they are used is exceedingly strange.

Queer theory discourse regularly destabilizes grammar, for example by using verbs and adjectives as nouns, and nouns as verbs. A common example is the phrase "blacks are othered by whites." This technique is often combined with typographical trickery and odd spelling. For example, a discussion about construing the mother as Other results in the word "(m)othered". It is not surprising that this kind of praxis has been criticized as virtuosic performance rather than careful analysis.

I sometimes wonder if the repertoire of fancy footwork that seems to comprise queer theory really has any intellectual content. Is it genuine theory — or is it just praxis without theory? Elizabeth Meese in an article titled "Theorizing Lesbian : Writing — A Love Letter" (from her book (Sem)erotics: Theorizing Lesbian Writing) writes like this:

"Why is it that the lesbian seems like a shadow — a shadow with/in woman, with/in writing? ... A shadow of who I am that attests to my being there, I am never with/out this lesbian. And we are always turning, this way and that, in one place and another. ... What could be the auto-bio-graph-y of this figure, of this writing "lesbian"? The word, the letter L, and the lesbian of this auto-biography, this auto-graph? I like the letter L which contains its own shadow, makes and is made up of shadow, so that I cannot de-cipher the thing from its reflection. ... How then to begin to say what lesbian : writing is, to write its story, to speak of the letter of the letter?"

How indeed? What is the difference between the words "auto-bio-graph-y" and "auto-biography"? How do they differ from the word "autobiography"? Does Meese use the hyphens because she doesn't think we are intelligent enough to understand the etymology of the word? If so, why does she hyphenate the word differently, apparently in the same context? Is there any possible way in which we could conceive that the word "de-cipher" might have a different meaning from the word "decipher"? Does the letter L have a shadow? If so, does it have more of a shadow than the letter S? Does it matter? Does a Sapphist have less of a shadow than a Lesbian? Does the compound noun "lesbian : writing" have a particular meaning because the colon is separated by spaces between its elements? If it does, why doesn't Meese tell us?

If you don't stop reading after the first few paragraphs of this sort of thing (it's not a hoax — though it certainly looks like one), you will eventually come to the kernel about lesbians being semantically subjugated by the phallo-logo-centric system, a theory supported by quotations from Derrida, Lacan, Luce Irigary and Monique Wittig: the usual sort of thing that is simultaneously premise and conclusion of queer theory discourse.

This example from Meese is an extreme example of such discourse, but it is by no means uniquely odd. It is part of a general trend in queer theory to attribute to mere typography a meaning and a power that it really does not possess.

Meese goes on, in a passage especially relevant for understanding the nature of queer "theorizing":

"Lesbian theorizing is always at once theoretical and "pre"-theoretical: the writer behaves as though she knows what the lesbian is, what theorizing lesbianism entails, despite what Mary Daly and Jane Caputi term its "wildness," what is "not accounted for by any known theories". The "pre"-theoretical of lesbian theorizing is and is not a "pre"- on its way to becoming something in itself, is and is not a stage of anticipation before the letter — a "pre"-, waiting to be "post"-. The lesbian writer presents her subject as (the) One in the absence of others."

What kind of pre-post-pubertal writing is this? If we use this as an example, then I think we can realize that there is no way that this could be rewritten in a less rarefied or more intelligible and accessible manner: if it were "translated", it would simply cease to be queer theory. There is simply no way you could sit down with Meese and say, "Let me help you edit this so that it is clearer." There is no way she would allow anyone to untangle her knot. The point I want to emphasize is that reasonable claims for clarity can only apply to conventional analysis — and queer "theorizing" is in a different category altogether. Queer theory is not so much an analysis as an attitude. Whenever someone says they are going to "retheorize" something, you know there's trouble ahead. To "theorize" means basically "to make things less clear."

What many apologists for queer theorizing fail to appreciate is that the obscurity of queer theory is not the result of a lack of writing skill, but a deliberate strategy to (A) overcome the opponent by befuddling him or her, (B) to signify one's in-group status and solidarity, and (C) to undermine a faith in linguistic "meaning" that is said to be a feature of traditional patriarchy. The term "obscurantist" seems apt: queer theories are not only obscure, but deliberately obscure.

To appeal for accessibility and clarity misses the point: the queer theorist quite deliberately chooses complexity rather than clarity in his or her discourse, in the mistaken belief that clarity perpetuates reductionism/essentialism/idealism. We should bear in mind that we are not talking about the age-old problem of academic jargon, but about the specific recent emergence of the French-American school of deconstruction/structuralism/social constructionism. Queer theorists belong to the school of discourse theory (Derrida, Foucault et al.). Unlike great thinkers of the past (and present), members of this school not only employ neologisms but regularly refrain from defining them. Given the choice between any two words, the queer theorist will always choose the word that is not in the dictionary. The highest praise a queer theorist can wish for is that their discourse illustrates "verbal pyrotechnics", for neologisms and nonce-words are the name of this game (I almost called it "ludic").

The fundamental principle of queer theory is "to theorize" rather than to communicate knowledge. Their aim is not to uncover truths and realities and all that essentialist/empiricist rubbish ("knowledge n'exist pas"), but to deconstruct discourse by turning every query about substantive issues into a query about strategic issues. Queer theory is an exercise in ideology rather than communication; many practitioners will admit that it is a strategy in the class struggle for hegemony: the aim is not analysis per se but analysis as a tool for social change.

Queer theorists and cultural theorists now dominate the once-conservative academic departments, and they are not likely to respond to requests that they write more intelligibly for non-academic non-queer-theorist-colleagues. Queer theory will lose its power if it lapses into boring old "Gay and Lesbian Studies" and dull empiricism that deals merely with facts. I am not altogether sure that queer theorists realize that self-imitation has become self-parody, and that more and more people have a sneaking suspicion that all the brilliance with which the emperor's clothes are described will not blind us to his nakedness.

The Homosexual/Heterosexual Binary

Queer theorists often assert that "Exclusive homosexuality is a conceptually necessary marginalia to any notion of compulsory heterosexuality. It is the culturally necessary "other", it exists as a site of resistance in the power relationships which produce both itself and heterosexuality." This sounds very fine and theoretical, but I don't think this has ever been true.

The psycho/sociological position that the "self" creates the "other" in order to define itself might be true in a general sort of way, but exactly how this works in relation to "the homosexual" is problematical. The view that heterosexual people define themselves in relation to queer people is a theoretical assertion without historical evidence. Although George Chauncey in Gay New York (1994) claims that "in its policing of the gay subculture the dominant culture sought above all to police its own boundaries", in fact his whole book is ample testimony to the fact that the vast majority of ordinary people were either indifferent to or merely curious about queers. Most of the policing he cites had hardly any effect upon queers, much less upon straights. The vast majority of ordinary people in the past (and even today) were either indifferent to or merely curious about queers: they certainly did not require them to create their own sexual identities. In the case of women, there are physiological realities such as menstruation and pregnancy which many have used as a basis for defining their sexuality without having recourse to the existence of lesbians in order to define themselves.

Court records and the early medical literature demonstrate time and time again that the existence of queers comes as a great revelation to most people, most of whom had never heard of such things, and not even thought about the possibility of such things. Straight society for most of history would know hardly anything about queer society were it not for occasional scandals exposed by newspapers and courts — and yet they managed to live happily (or unhappily) married lives and have families without such knowledge of "the other". In fact, rather than exploit the "other"-defining potential of queer scandals, the authorities often attempted to hush them up when they realize how many people, some prominent, will be implicated in them. The "policing of the boundaries" consists mainly of sporadic crackdowns on vice when it threatens to get out of hand or to tarnish the public image of a city when it prepares to sponsor international athletic games or fairs. Throughout history queer people and subcultures have been actively hidden from view so as not to jeopardize the definition of normal people and cultures.

Mechanisms of social control and structures of power have existed quite happily throughout history without the model of a strict heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy or binary. The adult/child and male/female binaries, not to mention master/slave and class binaries, are quite sufficient power relationships for constructing heterosexuality without bringing in the concept of homosexuality.

The simple-minded notion that one must create homosexuals in order to have a boundary which is integral for the construction of heterosexuals completely ignores the long history of the suppression and censorship of knowledge concerning the crimen nefandum or peccatum mutum, the mute sin. The legal practice in early eighteenth-century Amsterdam is typical of many periods and cultures: trials for sodomites were secret affairs; when sodomites were executed the trial documents were sometimes destroyed so that no record would remain; most sodomites were executed in secret, rather than in public, as with other criminals; sodomites who were imprisoned were kept hidden in solitary confinement in the cellars of prisons, and were not allowed to mix with other prisoners or to take part in prison labour. For example, Jan Jansz, convicted in 1741 at the age of seventeen, spent his remaining fifty-seven years alone in his cell, his existence virtually unknown except to modern scholars. How did Jan Jansz serve as a "negative example" to define or enforce normality?

(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

Return to Gay History and Literature