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  • Response:“Unsafe Politics and Risky Connections”
  • Suzanne Bost (bio)

I have been asked to write a response, which first demands a reflection. As others in this body of essays have already alluded, the initial response to the debate at MMLA 2012 about Queer Theory’s continued vitality was messy, sometimes loud, and certainly not unitary. I wish I could replicate in writing the urgency and cacophony of the original response: a room full of people with their hands raised all at once, talking on top of each other when they couldn’t wait to be called upon, whispers between neighbors, anxiety. The critique of a much loved theoretical mode and political architecture—queer—produced awkward, unfinished responses, tentative propositions, and a sense that something new was emerging. It is difficult to respond to something that is still emerging. Indeed, this is my third iteration of response: my first was vocalized in Cincinnati, my second was written in response to earlier versions of these papers, and now this. I will end this response with an open question to indicate that this process is still emerging and that this response is a solicitation rather than an endpoint. I will continue to re-vise endlessly my views on the relationship between identity and politics.

At one point Carina Pasquesi’s essay concluded with a call “to continue to think past representation and inclusion and instead imagine and build alternative models of being and belonging beyond traditional forms of kinship and intimacy.” (She has since revised this conclusion with a series of unanswered questions, which is totally in keeping with my reflection above.) I think the unrevised sentence encapsulates the heart of the debate best, though. Do we want to reimagine the world queerly (a radical ideal that produces [End Page 127] some necessary horror) or to change the world by way of inserting ourselves into the systems of legibility through which rights and power are distributed? If queer is anti-identitarian, it is because it is a framework that challenges conventional models of representation linking bodies, identities, and politics. Queer theory’s original intent was to emphasize these categories’ failure to align in predictable ways. Judith Roof worries that inscribing multiple differences, a “seemingly never-ending list of categories,” (104) within queer is an intellectual “sleight-of-hand” (104) that reinscribes categorical essentialism and creates another binary. Is queer just another identity category, or is it a marker of incoherence that is unintelligible in the face of juridical demands for legibility? Is the objection to queer that it is too rigid or that it is too fluid? As a thinker, I am a big fan of incoherence: expanding intellectual possibilities by embracing contradictions and multiplicity. But these ideals are difficult to put into practice. How do we translate our radical intentions into politics? How do we even put them into language?

I would like to restore to the conversation a term from Pasquesi’s original paper presented in Cincinnati: barebacking (anal intercourse without a condom, a term Pasquesi embraced in her analysis of Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy). Audience members reacted to the risk of AIDS transmission embedded in this practice as well as to the presumed male-centeredness of barebacking as a metaphor. I, myself, was driven to tears. To me, the real question is, how much risk are we willing to embrace in order to assert (or to feel) our own unique feelings and desires? Identity politics are pretty comfortable, self-affirming, seemingly clear-cut. Identity-based movements are recognized by the federal government and provide avenues for securing protections for “suspect classes.” Barebacking points a middle finger at protection and advantage. It accepts risk in order to assert queer love. It is about the ways in which our every move against hegemony might end our lives. According to Dean, barebacking is concerned with “overcoming the boundaries between persons” (2). Permeability means letting down our defenses, embracing the potentially alien, accepting how messy intimacy can be. [End Page 128]

As a scholar of Gloria Anzaldúa—who embraced corporeal, national, and identitarian permeability—these gestures are very attractive to me. Most famously, Anzaldúa described the U.S./Mexico border as...