- The Queer Turn in Feminism: Identities, Sexualities, and the Theatre of Gender by Anne Emmanuelle Berger
To better understand the complex formations and developments of alternative queer thought in the academy, it would seem pertinent, if not necessary, to consider: What was feminist, gender, and queer theory? And how might this rather difficult question allow us to address both the challenges and opportunities currently facing artists, activists, and theorists alike? French theorist Anne Emmanuelle Berger offers one perspective in her recent book, The Queer Turn in Feminism: Identities, Sexualities, and the Theatre of Gender. Overall, Berger highlights what is at stake in the shifting movements of feminist, gender, and queer theory across and between two preestablished schools of thought.
The Queer Turn in Feminism focuses on the study of sexual difference and gender identity in the differing “French” and “American” schools of thought. In particular, she considers how the emergence of gender theory in the United States between 1975 and 1990 can be traced back to sources that include early and mid-century analyses on anomalies in sexuality, facets of “French” thought that focused on “the feminine,” studies on the relation of sex roles in society, and the development of gay and lesbian studies beginning in the 1980s. Furthermore, Berger considers how the “critical re-evaluation” of the earlier positions in feminist and gender theory allowed for the formulation of queer studies beginning in the 1990s. For Berger, just as a certain “French thought” (e.g., Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze) would become so deeply influential to the study of gender in the United States, it is this retooled “American” school (e.g., Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Joan Scott) that is currently influencing the rise of gender studies and queer studies in France. Thus, Berger argues that in the “American” context, the “intro-respective” shift to discourses on after-ness (e.g., postidentity, postfeminism, posthumanism) is already entrenched, whereas in the “French” context these ideas are still recent. This historical exchange is not only explained but performed throughout the book: In one paragraph she may [End Page 139] provide a detailed discussion on Butler’s interpretation of drag subcultures, and immediately in the next, draw on the role of the phallus in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.
The Queer Turn in Feminism is divided into four sections. The first explores early “American” theorizations on gender performativity and related emergent queer readings on identity by considering the blurred, yet distinguishable, categories of theatrical and linguistic performance. Berger considers how the figure of the drag queen “constituted gender theory as ‘queer’ from the outset, even before being recognized as such” (7). The second focuses on the ways in which the rhetoric of a certain “politics of visibility” enacted a shift in thinking about sexual minorities. Berger traces this “politics of visibility” back to the civil rights movement and certain gay liberation projects in the 1980s and 1990s to underline the relationship between visibility and performance theory. Following these analyses, she considers the tension between a paradigm of “gender theory” that focuses on cultural images and attributes of womanhood versus a paradigm of “sexual difference” that points to the impossibility of representing femininity. The third section highlights the queer potential of the “semantic instability” that has shaped the study of gender today. In this section, Berger introduces what she refers to as “the idiom of sexual difference” that has travelled across a list of theorists from Freud to Butler. Finally, in the fourth section Berger focuses on prostitution and sex work as a means to highlight the complex, often contradictory relationship among queer forms of activism, sex/gender identification, and capitalist production.
There is, perhaps, room to critique Berger’s book as a Western-centric reading of the development of feminist, gender, and queer theory between two exclusive schools of thought. Yet upon further consideration, one realizes that this sort of exhaustive representation was never at stake in her project in the first place. As Berger explains in...