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  • Nature's Queer Performativity
  • Karen Barad (bio)

"Acts against nature"—what beastly images are conjured by this phrase? When "acts against nature" are committed, the crimes are of no small measure. Moral indignation is oozing forth, like amoebas through Texas soil, and lives are at stake (maybe literally).1 What kinds of acts against nature inspire moral outrage? Queer pleasures for sure, even some forms of heterosexual sex, and an assortment of other human practices. Clearly, the nature/culture divide is at issue and at stake, but the logic that tries to hold it in place is quite perverse. On one hand, it is clear that humans are understood to be the actors, the enactors of these "acts against nature." The sense of exteriority is absolute: the crime is against Nature herself, against all that is natural. Nature is the victim, the victimized, the wronged. At the same time, humans who commit "acts against nature" are said to be acting like animals. In other words, the "perpetrator" is seen as damaging nature from the outside, yet at the same time is reviled for becoming part of Nature. Bestiality is surely both a spoken and an unspoken infraction here, but the real crime is the breach of the Nature/culture divide, which has not simply been ruptured but has itself been wronged. In other words, those who would prosecute the "perpetrators" of "crimes against nature" trip over the very divide they seek to secure. To make matters worse, "acts against nature" truly deserving an enraged [End Page 121] response for grave injustices enacted are traditionally excluded from counting as any kind of infraction within the (il)logic of this moralizing practice. A case in point: given the usual associations of humans with culture and animals with nature, one might think that forms of violence against animals perpetuated by industrial meat production—that is, the mass extermination of "others" made killable—would qualify in this logic as "acts against nature" worthy of our provoking moral outrage.2 And yet, it is particular sexual acts that are criminalized and labeled immoral, while the mass extermination of animals goes unnoticed and unpunished, and is normalized, naturalized, and sanitized as part of the cost of food production. If logic falters, what difficulty of the nature/culture divide is being indicated at this juncture where queer theory and ecocriticism meet?

Performativity has been essential to queer theory.3 And yet, performativity has been figured (almost exclusively) as a human affair; humans are its subject matter, its sole matters of concern.4 But human exceptionalism and other anthropocentrisms are odd scaffoldings on which to build a theory that is specifically intended to account for matters of abjection and the differential construction of the human, especially when gradations of humanness, including inhumanness, are often constituted in relation to nonhumans.

A case in point is the well-honed tactic of dehumanization—through the identification of an oppressed group of humans with despised nonhuman others "whereby it [becomes] possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience."5 Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi force the SS, was no stranger to this tactic. He is unflinchingly explicit about the kinds of consequences such equivalences are meant to effect: "Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany."6 The effects on human life of such identifications or (en) forced equivalencies between humans and nonhuman others have [End Page 122] been, and continue to be, devastating. At the same time, we would be remiss if the acknowledgment of the differential constitution of the human in relation to the nonhuman only served to refocus our attention, once again, exclusively on the human.

One response to the kind of genocidal arithmetic used by Himmler has been...


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pp. 121-158
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