- The New "Queer" and the Old Racism
"Trans" or transgender topics have exploded in the last ten to fifteen years, as even those scholars of music who actively avoid culturally critical work would be hard-pressed to ignore. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle's Transgender Studies Reader launched a field in which "trans" was theorized as an identity, positionality, and analytic.1 Unsettling aspects of embodiment, identity, and politics that even "queer" could not account for, "trans" became the new queer, in a sense. The tectonic plate-shifting idea that morphology and gender are not coterminous fundamentally cha(lle)nged queer and feminist scholarship, a challenge that was both produced by and productive of a certain "radicality" that was then attributed to "trans" as a modifier. In this discussion, I suggest that the implicit radicality of terms like "queer" and "trans" produces the very elision of race, class, ability, and other vectors of power that those terms presumably meant to include. Radical modifiers often reproduce the very structural elisions they are supposed to critique.
The first section of my argument examines the performative effect of a term that is taken to be transgressive. The second section traces several genealogies of queer and feminist scholarship and provides context for raceing queer music scholarship. The third section suggests that musicology may ironically be well positioned to intervene on the deracination of "queer" and "trans" in both scholarly and cultural spheres.
The Making of a Radical Killjoy (with Thanks to Sara Ahmed)
When a term opens a new thought paradigm, the effect of opening new theoretical, artistic, and/or material worlds can be an "implied radicality." For example, [End Page 63] terms like "queer" and "transgender" have, importantly, become signal terms in music scholarship. This implied radicality however also makes them very difficult to critique from within.
An affect and effect of radicality permeate much of the conversation around social justice in and outside the academy.2 For example, if, at a conference, a scholar is presenting on such a topic as "glitter as a resistant sartorial strategy in queer nightlife," how does one critique any aspect of that work without becoming what Sara Ahmed has beautifully termed "the feminist killjoy"?3 If this article were being given at AMS, the oceanic white cis heteronormativity of our conference makes the stakes for such a queer interruption even higher and more prone to misinterpretation. The sidelining of queer and trans people of color that is still common in queer theory thus is bolstered, ironically, by the presumed avant-garde nature of the topic. We might call this the fetishization of radicality.
When, as I often do, I choose to engage queer scholars and offer a critique that centers women of color, for example, the response is often defensiveness. There is a strange form of respectability politics that emerges around queer scholarship that it should not be critiqued (at least not out in the open). The idea that critique invalidates work is troubling to me as a queer and trans person of color and as a scholar. We need, now more than ever, to teach our students that critique is the highest form of praise, for it means you are reading/listening closely and engaging the text through the prism of your own thinking. Any radicality that closes down in the face of query would fail Angela Davis's seminal definition of "radical" as "grasping things at the root," pun intended.4
A second performative effect of radical modifiers, which is something that they do, is that they shift the focus of the critique from the argument to the asker. To return to the example of wanting to contribute to an exegesis on glitter as a sartorial nightlife practice, if such a topic is deemed to be outside of critique, the person asking the question becomes the critiqued. Radical modifiers boomerang the focus from what is said to who is saying it and their presumed motivations. Again, Ahmed calls this the making of "the feminist killjoy."
I would like to suggest that we learn to turn this state of affairs and Ahmed's pithy term into a litmus test for implied...