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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.4 (2003) 433-470

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Listening to the Sirens
Music As Queer Ethical Practice

Judith A. Peraino


The history of Western music is, among other things, a history of sexual anxiety, ambivalence, and negotiation. This article examines four moments in this musical-sexual history, each no less than eight hundred years from the next: the Siren episode in the Odyssey (c. 700 B.C.E.), the writings of Augustine (composed 387- 413), the music and writings of Hildegard of Bingen (composed 1150-75), and the performances of Marilyn Manson in 1996. I choose these moments for the sake of coherence; their resonances demonstrate how music transhistorically functions as a technique for conceiving, configuring, and representing queer subjectivity. In other words, music invites individuals to question subjectivity as it is composed according to the structure of "compulsory heterosexuality" in phallocentric, patriarchal culture. 1

In exploring how music functions in this questioning process, I use the word queer as a sexually freighted synonym for questioning. The etymology of queer is uncertain. One source suggests its origin in the early English cwer[crooked, not straight]. 2 Another possible origin is the Indo-European root -twerkw, which yielded the Latin torquere [to twist] and the German quer [transverse]. The word first appears, however, in early-sixteenth-century Scottish sources as an adjectival form of query, from the Latin quaerere [to question]. 3 The question associated with queer clearly became one of sexuality and gender in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the word peppers such novels as Henry James's Turn of the Screw (1898) and Radcliffe Hall's Well of Loneliness (1928) and appears as a label for dissident sexuality in at least one sociological study from 1922. 4 In the early 1990s the word queer emerged as a term of resistance to the 1970s identity labels gay and lesbian; these identities were rooted to a large extent in gender separatism and in a naturalized hetero/homosexual binary. 5 "Queer," according to David M. Halperin, describes a subject position "at odds with the normal, the [End Page 433] legitimate, the dominant . . . an identity without an essence." 6 In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's words, it is "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically." 7

Queer theory, then, questions given concepts of identity based on same-sex desire, expanding their scope to include intersections of gender and sexuality with race, class, ethnicity, and institutions such as family, religion, and nation-states. As a term of relation, queer describes neither a simple binary opposition to normative heterosexuality nor a position outside in dialectic with the status quo, but a threat—the sexual ignition of cultural phobias. These phobias, primarily about gender confusion and the displacement of the patriarchal heterosexual family, become anxieties about the integrity of the self, subjectivity, and social identity. Today individuals who live openly as gays and lesbians, or who live outside or between the male/female gender binary, constitute the main queer threat igniting such phobias and thus are themselves threatened with the greatest material and political consequences. 8 In past historical eras, formations of queer subjectivity condensed not so explicitly around sexual practices but around sexualized identities, such as being a "Saracen" or a "Lollard," or around other sexualized practices, such as music. 9

Music is notoriously resistant to legibility, let alone monolithic signification, and though cultural, feminist, and queer theorists in musicology have worked hard to reveal the signatures of subjectivity and ideology in musical sounds, it is this resistance to legibility that allows for the use of music as a strategy for configuring queer subjectivity. As a discursive practice, music is double-tongued, participating in both the normalizing and the abnormalizing of the subject, as Philip Brett's groundbreaking article "Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet" describes. 10 Similarly, Suzanne Cusick, in...


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