- Lesbians, Life, and Antiracist Ethics
I was delighted to be asked to offer commentary on Are the Lips a Grave?—I read the book as soon as it came out, and as soon as I read it, I fell in love with it. I love the form of the book both for this book—on queer feminism—and as a model for feminist scholarship. It is deeply personal in ways that are made so clearly and viscerally relevant. It is at once rigorously critical and devotedly generous. It is creative in its conceptualization and archival breadth, and it richly explores so many narrative resources for thinking queer feminism—that is, queer feminism as something more than an amalgamation of the queer and the feminist. This is one of those books we needed; a book that we hungered for long before it materialized. I teach parts of it in nearly all of my classes now and refer all of my grad students to it as a place from which to begin thinking both queer feminism and ethics (and especially queer feminist ethics), as a resource for thinking about how to map and articulate their own archives of discourse, and as a model for writing in a feminist modality of respectful intellectual participation. I focus my comments here on three of the book's themes that have been particularly generative in my own intellectual pursuits: lesbians, life, and antiracism.
One of the most generative aspects of the book for me was Huffer's insistence on the importance of the figure of the lesbian. This is a vital intervention for feminist and queer theory in general, and for me it has been an important resource for imagining "queer feminist science studies" as a creative project—something other than a "marriage" of feminist critique of science and queer celebrations of natural perversity or diversity (see Cipolla, Gupta, Rubin, and Willey, forthcoming).
Huffer turns to the lesbian comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), offering a reading of Bechdel's autobiographical account of her own coming out, to frame the case for reclaiming the figure of the lesbian. Bechdel's journey, [End Page 150] depicted in "Coming Out Story" (1998), begins at her college's co-op bookstore and is filled, in classic Bechdelian fashion, with written texts. In between scenes at the co-op and the library of the gay student union she finally joins, readers are treated to an iconic DTWOF scene of a woman alone in bed with books. Huffer argues that "Bechdel helps us think about queer feminist subjectivity by figuring it visually as the one-handed reading of the masturbating dyke" (2013, 120). In her reading of these frames of Bechdel in bed with books, Huffer eloquently interprets that dyke figure: "Her quest is both erotic and epistemological: 'an insatiable hunger' for 'knowledge' that is at once literary, corporeal, and female" (119). Huffer begins here to track a "genealogy of masturbatory queer dyke-love" through which she theorizes "mutuality, reciprocity, and respect for difference" as the ground for an erotic ethics (130).
This genealogy is extraordinarily generative, opening onto so many scenes we might now reimagine in light of this figure's recuperation from the decidedly un-queer feminist. For my purposes, and for a vision of a queer feminist science studies, Huffer's genealogy suggests the entangled production of the lesbian-feminist signifying power and naturecultural valence of "dyke." Natureculture is Haraway's (2008) term for the inextricability of those realms we have separated and deemed material and discursive respectively. Uses of "dyke" signal the simultaneity of the political/historical specificity and embodiedness of sexuality and gender (Willey 2016, 98–99). Huffer's Irigarayan rethinking of what counts as queer inspired my reading of "dyke" as distinct and distinctively generative vis-à-vis "queer" and "lesbian."
The question of where queerness comes from is decentered in the ardent and powerful claiming of lesbian embodied in the term "dyke." It takes on an ontological status, that is to say, a "realness" that is decidedly naturecultural. Dykes might be born unassimilable within the heteropatriarchally gendered order of things or recruited by the lure of feminist propaganda...