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  • We Were There, We Are Here, Where Are We?Notes Toward a Study of Queer Theory in the Neoliberal University
  • Yasmin Nair (bio)

In his book Uncivil Rites, Steven Salaita writes about the case of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) assistant professor of biology, Leo Koch. In 1960, Koch published a letter in the Daily Illini “that challenged repressive sexual mores, decrying ‘the widespread crusades against obscenity.’”1 For this, he was denied tenure.

Salaita, infamously fired by UIUC after being hired into a tenured position, wryly notes, “Ironically, had Koch criticized Israel in 1960, and had I condemned sexual puritanism in 2014, neither of us would have been fired. The topic is less important than the system.” Indeed, from the vantage point of 2016, it seems ridiculous that a university would dismiss a professor for complaining about “crusades against obscenity” (and we can only hope for a time in the future when it will seem as ridiculous to fire someone for criticizing Israel).2

The University, after all, is now Perfectly Queer. It’s not just that nearly every discipline practically mandates that gender and sexuality be incorporated into research and teaching but that queerness is considered, well, not queer at all anymore. So is Queer Theory dead? Or has it simply become queer theory? What place if any does it have in the neoliberal university? This article contends that queer theory’s supposed powers, of breaking norms and binaries, were never as disruptive as its adherents, including me, have claimed or assumed. Furthermore, queer theory, although not without its uses and pleasures, has been firmly [End Page 7] ensconced within the neoliberal university, quietly helping to distract from the ferocious privatization and corporatization of public and private universities with an allure of the daringly seductive.

This article is an exploratory piece, presaging a larger one. It wends through the history of the neoliberal university, the lineage of queer theory, and the larger economic contexts and storms that continue to rage outside the windows of the ivory tower. Without dwelling profoundly on the details of Salaita’s case—I use his remark as a springboard—I aim to provide a history of how we got to this place, where the topic of queerness and its attendant mulling in the form of queer theory became so entrenched in a system that encourages the shutting down of dissent and the exploitation of massive numbers of employees in the name of profits.

I question what has become of queer theory’s radical project and whether it ever really had a radical project to start with. In broad ways, I take up two forms of arguments that spring from the heart of queer theory, like arrows dipped into basilisk blood in order to defeat foes. The first is the constantly repeated claim that queer theory’s primary function is to break down the homo/hetero binary.3 The second is that queer theory is relevant to all or at least several modes of inquiry, resulting, for instance, in the popular gerundive act of “queering” everything from capitalism to agriculture to religion. My exploration of these issues will require an interweaving of the history of queer theory, the neoliberal university, and my own place in formal and informal academic contexts.

The History of the Neoliberal University

By now, enough has been written about the neoliberal university that its course can be charted quickly. In brief: Following the more general neoliberalization of the global economy, starting in and around the 1970s, universities worldwide increasingly became less invested in research and academics and more focused on making profits as corporate entities.4 None of this is to point towards a history of the university as some original place of egalitarianism. If anything, university systems have been generally implicated in the rigid calcification of class hierarchies and the project of nationalism, with Britain’s elite universities leading the way and American institutions following.

But at various points of time, it has been generally understood that opening up education is a necessary act. To that end, the post-World War II American G.I. Bill ensured that veterans gained access to both jobs and education (although...


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