- Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism by Madhavi Menon
Madhavi Menon's latest book is as an illuminating critique on the problematic ideology of identitarian politics and theory. Although Indifference to Difference deals most intimately with the ongoing debates within queer theory and LGBTQ rights, Menon's radical argument translates effortlessly to any identity-based field of inquiry. The crux of this book centers on the philosophical debate between particularism and universalism and its application within our contemporary discourse on identity. Especially in the arena of sexuality politics, which has historically insisted on explicating sexual identities and subsequently including each freshly-minted one within the acronymic alphabet soup (LGBTQ+), the power and perils of "naming" have been deeply felt. As Menon powerfully argues in her introduction, "Identity is the demand made by power—tell us who you are so we can tell you what you can do. And by complying with that demand, by parsing endlessly the particulars that make our identity different from one another's, we are slotting into a power structure, not dismantling it" (2). Although Menon's interventions within identity theory and politics are not entirely novel, Indifference to Difference artfully deconstructs identitarian labels through the lens of queer desire in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
Menon begins dismantling this flawed system in her introduction, which labors in parsing the dense philosophical jargon of critical literary theory. Building off the identity theories of Ernesto Laclau, Eric Lott, Linda Zerilli, Karl Marx, G.W.F. Hegel, and most importantly, Alain Badiou, Menon argues for a theory of universalism that is loaded with particularity and identity, and most importantly, is indifferent to difference. She terms this "queer universalism," since queerness as [End Page 138] a marker not only expresses that desire which defies identitarian limits, but as she explains, "Everything is queer because no-thing—peoples, events, desires—can achieve ontological wholeness" (19). Menon's "queer universalism," then, would be defined as "indifferent to ontology—it does not give us particular identities, considering instead all identities as not fully determined, or knowable, in short, as queer" (20). While the introduction has the fiery determination of a manifesto, a rallying cry for true intersectionality in scholarship and activism, her three body chapters are less consistently successful in explaining the utility of this new theoretical framework, especially as it applies to theatre and the performing body.
In chapter 1, "Out of Africa: Yinka Shonibare's Museum of Desire," Menon explores the art installations and paintings of Yinka Shonibare MBE, whose work challenges audiences' expectations and identitarian limits through infusing scenes of antiquated Western sophistication with bodies of color, sexual gratuity, and postcolonial critiques. Menon uses Shonibare's work to brilliantly dismantle the ideal of multiculturalism, arguing that this obsession with difference and bodily legibility is in fact rooted in institutions of power and the lingering oppression of colonialism.
Chapter 2, "Disembodying the Cause: Shakespeare's Dramatic Elisions," positions Menon's reading of queer universalism within her particular area of specialty, Shakespeare and sexuality. This chapter hones in on the idea of desire, or in Menon's word, "that which in every instance hollows out ontology" (16), and its relation to identity categories. Primarily focusing on the Indian boy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Desdemona's murder in Othello, Menon presents desire as an ineffable phenomenon which depends on its own immateriality, absence, and lack of finite origin to exist. Although the chapter is compellingly written, it does not contribute as fruitfully to Menon's thesis on queer universalism as do the other chapters, which unfortunately disrupts the flow of the book.
With chapter 3, "Lesbians without Borders: The Story of Dastangoi," Menon ventures into the realm of theatrical performance and reception studies. Menon uses "Shahzadeh Chouboli Boli," a modern play based on a centuries-old storytelling tradition in Delhi, as a case study to explore how queer universalism can be used in practice, both by artists and audiences. This section beautifully chronicles the history of dastangoi and its relationship with theatre...