- Queer Messes
Survival is not an academic skill.—Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
In After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, John Law comments on the inadequacy of traditional methods to describe things that are “complex, diffuse, and messy” (2004, 2). He argues that, in approaching the world as a set of determinate processes, scholars strip it of contingency, ephemerality, and indistinctness. Rather than creating the world in the image of the knowledge we produce about it, Law suggests that social scientists develop new methods that aim not to stabilize the world but instead to allow for its vagueness, its ineradicable messiness. Law’s account of the paradoxes and challenges of defining what eludes capture resonates with the experience of queer scholars. Not only has queer scholarship dealt centrally with untidy issues like desire, sexual practice, affect, sensation, and the body, it has also struggled continually to resist what Michael Warner has called “normal business in the academy” (1993). In an early statement, Warner wrote, “For academics, being interested in queer theory is a way to mess up the desexualized spaces of the academy, exude some rut, reimagine the publics from which and for which academic intellectuals write, dress, and perform” (xxvi). When it comes to being messy, we are.
From the start, queer scholars have acknowledged, and often celebrated, the messiness of their subject matter and have invented new modes of research, writing, and performance to deal with it. They have been slow to identify these new modes as methods because the term as it is generally understood is ill suited to address the vagaries of embodied life. In [End Page 345] the introduction to this special issue, the editors remark on the “apparent incommensurability of the phrase ‘queer methods’” (16). The title evokes a classic odd couple, uptight methods attempting to impose order on the slovenly queer. As Jane Ward writes in this volume, “[T]o pair the terms ‘queer’ and ‘methodology’—the former defined by its celebrated failure to adhere to stable classificatory systems or be contained by disciplinary boundaries, and the latter defined by orderly, discipline-specific, and easily reproducible techniques—produces something of an exciting contradiction, a productive oxymoron” (71–72).
The publication of this special issue is part of a recent movement in queer studies by scholars who see method as more productive than constraining. In the introduction to Queer Methods and Methodologies: Intersecting Queer Theories and Social Science Research (2010), Kath Browne and Catherine J. Nash argue that “[q]ueer researchers are in good company with other scholars drawing on poststructuralist and postmodernist approaches such as some feminist, anti-racist, and postcolonial scholars, in consciously seeking to articulate their ontologies and epistemologies but who are seemingly less inclined to consider the implications of these approaches to methodologies and methods”(1). Browne and Nash see the critique of traditional method as central to queer studies, and situate this aspect of the field in relation to other fields that struggle regularly with the problem of impossible evidence. But they argue that the field has failed to move beyond the moment of critique to develop self-consciousness about its epistemology and its relation to disciplinary, institutional, and material structures. Queer Methods and Methodologies inaugurated a salutary shift in the field that has been extended in a series of publications and conferences over the past decade.
My own engagement with method began when I started teaching a PhD class called “Queer Method.” I invited scholars in queer studies to visit the class, and when I asked them to talk about their method, they responded by saying, “I don’t have one.” To avow a method is to undermine, as the editors write in the introduction, “queer theory’s constitutional claims to inter/antidisciplinarity” (15)—as well as its position as a disciplinary outsider. With my training in queer literary studies, I also harbor resistance to method. But I have come to see this unwillingness to recognize the significance of method as a failure to grapple with queer studies as a positive knowledge project, one in need of the self-reflexivity that Browne and Nash describe. Being...