- To Come Undone or Never to Have Been "Done" at All?A Sounding of Lynne Huffer's Are the Lips a Grave?
I originally wrote this essay for a session on the book at the National Women's Studies Association in November 2014. At that time, the Black Lives Matter movement was just coming to national and international attention, and I began the essay with the urgency of the epidemic of violence against young black bodies that continues to ravage the United States. Writing now just before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, my concerns in 2014 about systemic state violence against persons of color seem anemic. I am more convinced than ever that we all must theorize, write, read, and live through this singular touchstone of systemic violence against vulnerable populations, especially as those are racialized. The violence of this dying empire is unnerving, and only poised to become more so.
And so I come to this book, this remarkable book on the possibilities and meanings of a queer feminist ethics, filled with the urgency of stopping this violence, of uprooting the ignorance and deep-seated fear, shame, and malice that fuel it through the pernicious rhetoric of color-blindness. As Huffer tells us explicitly, she understands "the dual burden of ethics as, first, the acknowledgment of harms and, second, the active elaboration of alternatives to these harms" (2013, 31). But the book, as a whole, stops me in my tracks. The classic responses of feminism—namely, to stop this epidemic of violence through education, consciousness-raising, and a good intersectional analysis—do not track along the lines of ethics that Lynne Huffer so meticulously charts. Following Huffer's lead, rather, we have to work back through the rationalist roots of such responses. If we are to find an ethical response to this epidemic and to so much violence that fills our contemporary world, we have to work back through the fundamentally Enlightenment notion of a subject that tethers such responses—and then unmoor ourselves from it. This kind of work is not easy [End Page 142] or fast. It is not uniform, tethered differentially as we all are. This work takes courage and patience and an appreciation of fine distinctions and complex histories—intellectual histories as well as institutional and social ones. It is as much an aesthetic undertaking as an ethical one—to unweave these deep, old habits and weave fresh ones anew. Responding to the zigzag of such an oblique, nonrational process, I offer here a sounding, much as a whale sounds and surfaces and sounds again, of Huffer's book to provoke us toward the lyrical ethics of erotic freedom that she articulates.
One of Huffer's primary points of departure is to argue that the false dichotomy that has been drawn between feminist and queer theory has allowed the language of ethics to drop out of the dominant discourses in both fields. This attenuation in both fields manifests differently: in feminist theory, Huffer valiantly calls out the ongoing moralism, which is most often a cloaked version of sex negativity, that we feminists seemingly cannot fully shake; in queer theory, Huffer laments the thinness of the accounts of ethics that derive from an antisocial turn that veers all too closely to a kind of elitist, aloof nihilism. Accordingly, she aims to rehabilitate a meaningful language of ethics by returning us to some of the resources of both feminist and queer theory, especially the work of early lesbian and European ("French") feminists who have strikingly fallen out of the dominant archives of both feminism and queer theory in their US-iterations: Luce Irigaray, Colette, Virginie Despentes, and Violette Leduc. Through these distinctly European texts, Huffer rehabilitates a "kinky, self-shattering lesbian feminist aesthetic tradition … that has been all but occluded" (2013, 24) in our feminist and queer work.
The causes of these occlusions are not easily mapped. We cannot account for them, for example, by recourse to some kind of agential or even sociologically structural story of an intentional power play of Anglo-American feminists and high gay queer theory. To the contrary, the ascendancy of particular...