- Introduction to the Special Issue
Can queer theory survive the twenty-first-century academy? With increasing economic precariousness for most people and skyrocketing tuition costs, higher education in the United States is now often seen as primarily about marketability. Not only is there growing institutional and state support of STEM fields, there is also increasing hostility to queer theory as “unnecessary” and difficult to translate into employment. This issue of QED started with the seemingly quixotic desire to save queer theory’s place in the increasingly corporatized university. When students at our institution propelled the formation of a residential queer studies house, many of our colleagues responded with disbelief. For these colleagues, students at a residential college may desire an identity-based house, like a “gay” space, but it was incomprehensible that students might want to actually explore queer theory more fully and deeply beyond the classroom. Why queer theory and why not something “useful” like public health or social entrepreneur-ship? In responding to these colleagues, we realized that, like our students, we too wanted more of an academic home for queer theory in the liberal arts world that we inhabit.
We have both always found queer theory useful in our classrooms and our scholarship. At the same time, we have our own misgivings about the state of the field. Queer theory too often seems wedded to unnecessary jargon and far too self-referential. We both are interdisciplinary scholars who know other fields and in comparison queer theory is both more parochial and more pretentious than it needs to be—a Manhattan nightclub scene rather than a robust and transnational dialogue among all who wish to play in the field. And yet, in queer [End Page 1] theory’s promiscuous mingling of high and low culture, its continued commitment to post-disciplinary work, its critical engagement with reality and power, and its willingness to put bodies and desires at the center of academic inquiry, queer theory is good theory. For both of us, queer theory remains a way of shaking up reality and realizing all is not what it seems.
So, we did what academics do when we are faced with a highly contested and contentious field of knowledge: we held a conference. With the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, we led a two-part series on “Queering the Liberal Arts.” Our thought was that if we could make queer theory integral to the liberal arts, then it would live on, somehow, even within the conditions of neoliberalism. We wanted to figure out ways to teach queer theory so that our students could translate these ideas into their lives beyond the liberal arts setting. By immersing ourselves in existing scholarship, what we found out is that queer theory is worthless. Queer theory is also dead. Or if not dead, then terminally twentieth century, unable to keep up with the transnational and intersectional insights of contemporary scholarship. Queer theory is not historical enough; it is too obsessed with genealogy; it is implicated in pink washing. As Jack Halberstam pointed out,
It seems to be a queer rite … to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin … to be over.1
A recent issue of another journal tries to save queer theory by pushing it to be less critical of normativity and less rooted in kneejerk anti-establishmentarianism.2 Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson admire the way queer theory has provided a sustained critique of normativity, from whiteness to heterosexuality, but also argue that in order to survive, queer theory needs to be more than antinormative. Instead, they ask what queer theory might produce if its relationship with antinormativity was not its starting point. For Wiegman and Wilson, queer theory’s important role in revealing that which normativity often masks—hegemony, domination, oppression—has also masked how norms and...