The Poetry of Queer Theory: A Reading Guide
In every language the loveliest question / is, You can say that?
—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
While most people spend their weekends hanging out with friends, making delicious food and generally being productive human beings, earlier this March I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at a graduate conference entitled, “Attachments: Queer Investments in Capital & Globalizations.” Organized by the Graduate Interdisciplinary Group on Gender Studies at the University of Minnesota, the conference addressed larger concepts of how bodies are regulated through the state, the non-profit industrial complex’s stake in the queer community, and temporal adjustments to the ways we think about crip-ness.
For those unfamiliar with the queer world of queer theory, here’s how I describe it to confused family members and friends: a critical discipline that came about in the ’90s, queer theory is as much about queerness as it is about reading the world in queer ways. While queer signifies personal and political identification with groups organized around sexuality and gender, it is also a stand in for the atypical, atemporal, improper and non-normative. Some say it emerged from post-structuralism, a school of philosophical thought that many prominent queer theorists were schooled in. There are also strong connections between comparative literature, art criticism, and queer theory. Queer theory encourages scholars and people to read the world around the in queer ways— it’s like Comp Lit’s weirder cousin, complete with septum ring and neon hair. The strands of queer theory that most interest me are connected to Third Wave or Third World Feminism, and borrow strongly from texts like This Bridge Called My Back.
If this doesn’t give a coherent definition of queer theory, then I recommend you check out this delightful blog that explains it in a much more entertaining, perhaps more realistic way.
One way that queer theory "reads" queerness into and across external texts is demonstrated in how the Queer Attachments conference was designed. Coordinators expertly framed panels around Beyoncé lyrics that ranged from “Drunk in Love” to “Get Me Bodied,” a nod to queer theory’s critical engagement with the world around us. The use of Beyoncé lyrics (which, yes, are a form of poetry), made me think about the literary histories and teleologies of queer theory, and how the world of literature and queer theory intersect and overlap.
Some examples of how queer theorists have read queerness into explicitly literary texts include Judith Butler's analysis of Antigone, one of the archetypes of Greek mythology and key player that became a blueprint for playwrights around the world. Luminaries like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick got their start teaching writing and literature and like many other theorists, Sedgwick even wrote her own poetry—her poetry is quoted in the beginning of this piece. Currently other queer theorists find themselves housed in departments like English and comparative literature. And before queer theory was even a discipline, poets like Audre Lorde, who laid the groundwork for different strands of queer theory, anticipated the ways that queer theory would grow alongside literary arts in decades to come. These intersections are not a coincidence.
Perhaps that is what I love the most about indulging in queer theoretical texts. There is something exciting about the fact that you can effectively queer the world around you. Queer theory equips you with the tools to read queerness into the field of literature, which has traditionally celebrated white, straight male authors and challenges you to view them from a different lens. It also encourages you to read the literary into texts not traditionally associated with "high brow" writing - like Mrs. Carter. It goes beyond the postmodern turn of deconstructionism and recognizes the weirdness, the political, the gross, the atemporal, the value and the queerness in all.
Intrigued? I’ve compiled a list of the most literary queer theoretical texts for the prose-minded to peruse:
Edited by Madhavi Menon
Ok so the name kind of says it all, but this book is filled to the brim with queer theoretical explorations of Shakespeare’s work. From language to themes to reflections of the author himself, the theorists in this book aim to recognize the queer in one of the most referenced authors in Western history. The writers also challenge notions of how “queerness” is expected to make itself knowable.
By Judith Butler
Again, this one spells it out in the title. Butler, one of the most prominent scholars in queer theory, uses Antigone, a character who became one of the most well known tropes in modern literature, to rethink her importance in feminist and sexual politics. Butler is famous for thinking about the performative postures of gender—a concept that has received as much scrutiny as it has acclaim.
By José Esteban Muñoz
Muñoz, who taught at NYU’s Performance Studies Department, sadly passed away late last year. His seminal text, Disidentifications, explored the ways that queer people of color navigate mainstream culture through transforming texts, performances, and people through their own performances. His book theorizes the very political queering of the majority culture and offers a perspective on how to think about the potential for queering the world of literature—in the future and as it is happening now.
By José Esteban Muñoz
Muñoz’s second book explores the temporality of queer time and reads a temporal dissonance into writing by authors like Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara, among other artists.
By Elizabeth Freeman
Another exploration in the temporal connections with queer theory, Freeman’s book provides a new reading on artists in an attempt to reveal the temporal dissonances and political significance of their work. Using contemporary literary theory to read her texts, Freeman shows how the fields of comparative literature and English are in constant conversation with queer theory.
By Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
This book goes beyond analyzing individual texts and fixes its queer gaze on the history of the novel. Sedgwick, along with other contributors, explore the queer worlds of authors like Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, among others. A must-read for writers and readers interested in the literary arts.
By Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
This collection of pieces written by Sedgwick was published posthumously after a battle with terminal cancer. While she was working on a book on Proust, this collection goes into a diverse assortment of texts, from Proust to Sedgwick’s own textile artwork. Sedgwick redefined the ways that psychoanalysis and affect theory were imagined within the scope of queer theory.