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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 757-770

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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Witch?
Queer Studies in American Literature

Marilee Lindemann

Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Duke University Press, 1997
The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities By Robert McRuer. New York University Press, 1997

The first line of this essay was going to be, Queer Studies is fun. That, I imagined, would be an appropriate way to launch a mostly upbeat assessment of the state of gay/lesbian/queer studies in American literature and culture, much as the proudly antiprogrammatic and undisciplined "discipline" has resisted efforts to declare or describe its statehood (see Edelman). I would have celebrated that resistance to schematization, seeing it as one of the chief sources of queer studies' current political and interpretive vitality and hearing in it echoes of those fierce declarations of early feminist critics determined to keep dancing through the minefields of theory without allowing themselves to be rigidly bound by allegiance to particular masters and paradigms (see Kolodny). I would have gleefully noted signs of popularization and even backlash against queer studies as proof that we must be doing something right, something unsettling to the usual ways of ordering and thinking about things, particularly sex and sexuality. Hey, I would have chortled with a nod toward the New York Times (see Smith) and the New Republic (see Siegel), we're getting vulgarized and trashed in all the right places. Then, I would have figured out some way to work in a not-too-subtle allusion to my own contribution to the field and gracefully exited the stage, as the smiling audience applauded its approval.

But several things happened on the way to the writing of this happy essay. In the spring semester of 1999, I taught my first graduate course in g/l/q theory and was surprised and disappointed that the "q" proved to be the elephant in the living room of the conversation the class was having, an obstacle and not an instrument, a block to understanding rather than a tool for achieving it. No matter how many times I insisted that queer named a politics of nonidentity and was most productive as a form of doing rather than a way of being (i.e., queerings rather [End Page 757] than queers), the class kept circling back to anxieties about who could call themselves queer and whether a coalition of amorphously defined queers could effect the kinds of political changes we supported. (The small class was mostly self-identified lesbians and gay men.) I could not get them to see that we was as vexed and unstable a term as queer, no matter how many times I went back to Judith Butler's brilliant deconstruction of identity terms in "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" (1993) (307-10). As spring gave way to summer, I continued to puzzle over how the "q" factor had taken over my classroom, making me more insistent and my students more resistant than is usually the case and making it harder for all of us to do anything more than dig in our heels on the positions we were comfortable with when the semester began. I also began immersing myself in the books that provide the occasion for this essay, Robert McRuer's The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's anthology Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Finally, as the long hot summer of 1999 turned into an officially declared drought (at least in my home state of Maryland), I let my lawn dry up and went to the movies, to the breakout independent hit of the season, The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Why do I tax the reader with my teaching woes and the story of how I spent my summer vacation while seeming to avoid the subject of these two important books and the crucial question of what queer studies is doing for...


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