- Rethinking Sexual Literacy in the Comp ClassroomHuffer, Alexander, Foucault
In 2008, Jonathan Alexander, a leading scholar in Queer Composition, published the influential book Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. Given the widespread tendency among scholars of First Year Writing to avoid significant contact with queer theory, I welcomed Alexander's risky, promiscuous text with open arms. Finally, I cheered, a comp scholar who is not afraid to venture outside the traditional boundaries of our field to consider how the insights of queer theory can enliven our work. Glancing at the table of contents for Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, it seemed this text had the potential to fulfill my hope for such courageous crossings with chapter titles such as "Bridging Sexuality and Literacy Studies," "Transgender Rhetorics," and "Queer Theory for Straight Students." Alexander's move in his opening chapter to align his key concept of "sexual literacy" with Foucault's History of Sexuality Volume 11 only amplified my initial expectations. At long last, it seemed I had finally found my guy: a comp scholar brave enough to engage with queer theory to revitalize our field.
Or had I? Unfortunately, this was the question I could not stop asking myself as I moved further into the pages of Alexander's text. In this essay, I discuss one of the reasons why I became skeptical about Alexander's ability to productively upend our field via queer theory. Here I specifically look at his engagement with Foucault's HS1 to demonstrate how Alexander's disregard for the nuances of this text routinely cause him to simplify and blunt the radical potential of such work. In a constructive move, I turn to Huffer's Mad for Foucault (2010) and Are the Lips a Grave? (2013) to offer an alternative model of a more transformative interaction between queer theory and composition. In particular, I focus on how Huffer's view of Foucault's erotic ethics can help us rethink Alexander's sexual literacy so it is less moralistic and less apt to contribute to the very forces it aims to displace. [End Page 186]
So, what happened during my encounter with Alexander's Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy to cause my initial passion to run cold? As I mentioned earlier, I was first drawn to this text because unlike so many other compositionists, Alexander does not eschew queer theory but rather openly embraces the work of authors such as Foucault. In his first chapter, for example, Alexander carefully summarizes Foucault's groundbreaking claim about the ruse of the repressive hypothesis within Western culture. Here he reminds us that, in contrast to the common view that speech about sex was repressed during the Victorian era, Foucault argues sexual discourse was amplified in this period as individuals were incited to speak the truth of their sex to a variety of scientific authorities (Alexander 2008, 42). To emphasize this point, Alexander directly quotes Foucault, including his pithy distinction in HS1: "'Rather than a massive censorship, beginning with the verbal properties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse'" (42). Given that many scholars overlook Foucault's assertion about the repressive production of sexual discourse, I was impressed by Alexander's overview here.
And yet, immediately following this quotation, Alexander "clarifies" Foucault's text in a way that dulls its more radical meaning. In particular, Alexander claims that, in Foucault's view, the Victorian era's incitement to discourse "linked (in the West) a sense of one's sexuality with a sense of one's identity" (42; emphasis added). Here Alexander repeats a commonplace among American queer theorists that, in HS1, Foucault locates a precise moment in Western culture, around 1870, when sexuality shifts from a set of "acts" to an all-encompassing personal "identity." However, this widely circulated "acts vs. identity" interpretation of HS1, reinforced by early influential theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, has recently been overturned by Lynne Huffer in Mad for Foucault (2010). Here Huffer carefully unravels this long-standing queer "dogma" by returning to the original French text of HS1 to show how American theorists—who only had access...