How They Do It Where We From: On Queer Form
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How They Do It Where We From:
On Queer Form

Everyone knows that Judith Butler did not conceive Gender Trouble as the founding contribution to queer theory that it almost instantly turned out to be.1 Nevertheless, one of the book's very first scholarly citations implicates it in a formal structure that we can now see as queer in a most fundamental sense. Butler's reference is to Denise Riley's "Am I That Name?"—an investigation into "feminism and the category of 'women' in history" that predated Butler's own book by almost exactly a year, and whose title itself is lifted from Shakespeare's Othello.2 It is a question posed by Desdemona to the scheming Iago, who has just heard from Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant, that Desdemona's husband Othello has deemed Desdemona a whore. Iago—who has of course duped Othello into his mistaken judgment—innocently asks, "What name, fair lady?" to which Desdemona replies, "Such as she says my lord did say I was"—phraseology that in its obliquity, indirection, and recursivity recapitulates at the level of form the very queerness that the play also registers at the level of theme, insofar as it depicts women's classic mediating function in relations between men.3 Inquiring as to whether she "is" a particular designation rather than a particular type of being, Desdemona has already oddly skirted the question of status that is really at issue in Othello's declaration. Here she furthers this project of evasion by disavowing direct knowledge of that declaration itself, casting as uncorroborated report ("she says my lord did say. …") what is in fact her personal experience, inasmuch as Othello has made his accusation right to her face.

Such a thwartwise way of proceeding is quint-essentially queer, though it need not be so defensive as it appears in Desdemona's curious speech. On the contrary, it can be an engine of subtle self-assertion, as in the oblique [End Page 259] second-person address characteristic of songs by the English band The xx, whose two lead vocalists superficially seem to be singing to each other but, because they are at once differently-gendered and gay-identified, avow that they are "really singing past each other"; the result is what at least one commentator has characterized as "the tamped-down eroticism" of their duets on such singles as "Crystalised" and "Islands."4

Figure 1. The xx vocalists Oliver Sim (left) and Romy Madley Croft (right) sing away from each other in the video for "Islands" (dir. Saam Farahmand, 2010). Copyright ©2017 Saam Farahmand. Reprinted by permission.
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Figure 1.

The xx vocalists Oliver Sim (left) and Romy Madley Croft (right) sing away from each other in the video for "Islands" (dir. Saam Farahmand, 2010). Copyright ©2017 Saam Farahmand. Reprinted by permission.

Or even better: on the 2010 release "Something Else," by Diamond Rings, the singer assures the object of his unrequited desire, "I know you know just what you like / And I am really not your thing," before going on to issue the caveat: "But just in case you change your mind / I wrote this song for you to sing."5

Figure 2. Diamond Rings stares down an elusive object of desire in a publicity still for the single "Something Else" (Secret City Records, 2010). Photo by Jared Raab. Copyright ©2017 by Jared Raab. Reprinted by permission.
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Figure 2.

Diamond Rings stares down an elusive object of desire in a publicity still for the single "Something Else" (Secret City Records, 2010). Photo by Jared Raab. Copyright ©2017 by Jared Raab. Reprinted by permission.

Why better? Because in mobilizing a circular syntax in order to posit a similarly cyclical reversal of romantic fortune ("I wrote this [very] song for you to sing [back to me]"), these lines not only manifest a queer form but also cunningly refuse the abjection to which their singer might [End Page 260] otherwise be consigned. Which is to say that they deploy form in a classically queer fashion, powerfully reminding us of that crucial practice, and powerfully demonstrating just how it is done.

Phillip Brian Harper
Ashton Cooper, Brooklyn
Phillip Brian Harper

PHILLIP BRIAN HARPER is Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Literature at New York University, where he teaches in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the Department of English. A scholar of modern and contemporary U.S. literature and culture, of African American expressive culture, and of gender and sexuality, Harper is...


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