Queer Relations
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Queer Relations

. . wavering line

        between two solids

themselves immersed

–Stephen Jonas, "Exercises for the Ear" (1968)1

There is nothing intrinsically queer about a form. Rather, queer capacities are engendered by activating relations—between forms, against an opposition or context, or (in the case of complex forms) among the internal dynamics of their components. Queer counternarratives and sites of otherwise identification can be located in the associations, frictions, and bonds between and among forms.

After all, one cannot be queer alone. Whether in the embrace of another or against the ground of a hostile society that seeks to enforce normativity, a life is thrown into relief as queer through its commitment to unauthorized or unorthodox relations and the transformative potential they represent. (Of course, the organizing synecdoche for this commitment is a set of sexual relations that refuse "natural" rites of procreation and, by extension, propose new modes of desire, pleasure, family, and kinship.) Even those theoretical models that assert negativity and the antisocial thrust of queer existence come to emphasize relationality as a locus of refusal and redefinition. Whether lone sexual outlaw or utopian collective, forms of living as queer are caught up with fundamental questions about what we do with each other. In all its many and varied forms, that is, queer existence takes relationality as the matrix in which difference and defiance become manifest.

I'm being somewhat stark in my characterization of both form and relation in order to draw out what I see as the most promising potential of a queer attention to their dynamics. Rather than expecting that we might find some form, formality, or format that is queer anywhere or everywhere, we need to engender a queer formalism that can pursue the intercourse of forms. There is both subversive and utopian potential in attending to the ways in which forms and their components get on. This is not an iconographic task. Rather, there is potential in striving to see the uses of formal relations beneath, beyond, in consort with, or against ostensible "content." Historically, we should remember, there have been many times when [End Page 254] formal manipulation has been the only vehicle through which queer insubordination could be conveyed. Its proponents escaped censure by means of this dissemblance and coding through forms, and they mobilized formal traits and relations as metonymies of unauthorized desires and positions of queer resistance. In effect, they relied on how something was said or imaged rather than the purported what.

With its invested attention to the relations between and within forms, a queer formalism can offer a heuristic counterpart to such coding through its cultivation of ways to read against the grain, beyond intentionality, and in pursuit of inadvertent potential. It can be a means for mobilizing formal relations in order to call forth counternarratives, to challenge given taxonomies, to attend to unorthodox intimacies and exchanges, and to subvert "natural" and ascribed meanings. Such subversions can come from examining how forms interact with each other, the patterns such relations adopt, the differential effects of context, or the ways in which form contradicts "straight" readings. There is queer potential in insurrections of form, shape, and pattern, as well as in their uses.

An attention to the queer dynamics of forms does not mean that we should abjure or ignore ostensible "content." Rather, it allows us to investigate how form can be mobilized in relation to content as a way of fostering such queer tactics as subversion, infiltration, refusal, or the declaration of unauthorized allegiances. We shouldn't think of formalism as turning away from content or context but rather as the focused pursuit of queer potential through the questioning of how content is shaped, transmitted, coded, patterned, undermined, and invested by means of form.2 In the capacious and un-technical sense in which I am proposing it here, formalism is less a method than a belief in the politics of form and the unruly potential of form's relations.3 Any queer formal reading must itself be relational, particular, and contingent on its situation and context. This is a strength, not a weakness. It echoes the tactical mobility of queer refusals of normativity...