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Diacritics 32.2 (2002) 3-19

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(Queer) Theory and the Universal Alternative

Judith Butler. Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.
Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso, 2000.

In October 2000, just a few weeks before the US presidential election, a young, fashionable, handsome man handed me a political leaflet while I crossed Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. I didn't give it much thought at the time (apart from noticing that the boy was kind of cute): I was in transit toward the 4th Street subway station and the Port Authority where I would catch the bus back to Cornell. When I decided to write a review essay on the current state of poststructuralism, Marxism, and queer theory through the lens of the two books listed above, I discovered I had lost the pamphlet, certain that my hostile reaction to what I considered its fundamental conservatism and trendy political correctness had unconsciously caused its mysterious disappearance.

When I rediscovered the leaflet in the chaos of my move away from Ithaca, I realized that my relation to it had been hysterical: I was reluctant to address its traumatic content, unwilling to excavate my multiple frustrations at the apparent impossibility of being a homosexual and a socialist in America. And yet I couldn't really forget about it either: though not an American citizen and therefore unable to vote, I found myself equally unable simply to dismiss the leaflet as a mere inconsequential symptom of the pseudo-democracy that America has always been, or unequivocally to endorse the snooty CBC/Queen Street condescension of my fellow Canadian Lefties toward the primitive, superficial, liberal (in the worst psychologistic sense), irremediably ideological, and thoroughly depressing state of American political discourse. "Those poor Americans," the far-from-irrelevant logic goes. "They either unquestioningly submit to the individualistic fantasy of the American Dream in order to participate in the 'political process,' or they become hermetically imprisoned in their pseudo-political anti-statist minoritarianism, too cool and too radical to condescend to the public sphere." After six years in the United States, I've now become aware that my inability to swallow much of contemporary queer theory—authored overwhelmingly by young, elite-educated Americans with relatively narrow political horizons—is mostly due to the manner in which it articulates numerous political assumptions fundamentally alien to my own socialization in a country whose political differences from the US are insufficiently appreciated in that nation, and in which extremes of climate and geography have engendered a collectivist ethos in many ways fundamentally hostile to the American-style extreme individualism with which I had lived for so many years.

But the interest of this sort of political autobiography is in this context undoubtedly limited. What—you might now find yourself impatiently wondering if you don't already [End Page 3] know—were the contents of this famous pamphlet? And what exactly was my problem with it? Published by a coalition of queer voters in New York called the Empire State Pride Agenda, the pamphlet presented extremely selective profiles of the main candidates, both Democrat and Republican, running for the offices of President, US Senator, State Senator, and Member of the State Assembly. Each profile summarized the history of a candidate's positions with respect to rights issues of concern to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. The profiles made no concerted effort to represent the candidates' perspectives on any other issue: gun control, education, foreign policy, the death penalty, taxation, health care (generally speaking, that is to say above and beyond the issues related to AIDS-related illness and reproductive rights); only policies directly concerning civil rights for nonheterosexual citizens were thoroughly broached.

I should confess that once I got the general idea I threw the pamphlet away in disgust: "Am I supposed to feel interpellated," I asked myself in full hysterical Althusserian mode, "by this utterly pseudo-political claptrap?" Is this what it means to be gay and political in America...


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