- Queer/Ivory Proclivities
When I first started teaching as officially out in the early 1990s—cross-cultural sexuality and also queer theory—the syllabus and the imaginary bookshelves of text on the topics, as Anjali [Arondekar] has pointed out so aptly [in this forum], were pretty close to isomorphic. As expected, these courses were replete with students who declared themselves as belonging to the project. What’s worth noting is that at the time in WGS classes, which were not entirely focused on sexuality, and in other such classes in which materials of sexuality had been occasionally integrated, queer materials were met with virulent disidentification by violent students. And one example from Iowa was a young Latino documentary filmmaker who made a queeny documentary of his childhood. Other students in his class were so incensed by his work that we had to go before the legislature and had to argue for sexuality as a necessary part of history and historiography. So, we had to negotiate for sexuality as a “good enough” intellectual project with worthwhile intellectual content. And, in another instance, at Wellesley we had to actually finesse a series of conversations between alums and funders and the administration. For Wellesley, I was someone who Wellesley hired to be out as the ordinary queer person constantly cozying up to the institution’s failure. And this happened (that is, the Wellesley instance occurred) because we showed—and Anjali was there at the time when we showcased—the film Fire with Deepa Mehta, the film-maker, in attendance. So, it was here: where the quotidian of sexuality was constantly pressing against its failure, even as it was, sort of, stuttering into a kind of weird exceptionalism.
I was involved in one of the few instances at the time where sexuality was a viable option for research or teaching in field formations, and history was one such example at Wellesley; George Chauncey had to face being hired on the [End Page 153] condition that he not be openly out.1 Even as his entire project on the historical United States had been foreshortened by the hiring committee into nothing but sexuality—the historical part of it could not even be considered something that had value. Let me explain: if anyone wrote on sexuality in any field, everything except sexuality dropped away from how their work was understood. It is as though sexuality was so terrifying that it overwhelmed, overtook all the other features of the person’s research. More vulgarly stated: sexuality was targeted in various ways. One had to pretend to be straight or one was forced to pass as straight. If one insisted that one’s area of research was sexuality—one was pushed into describing one’s research as being about nothing but sexuality. In other words, everything else in the project—urbanism, labor, local histories—all of that dropped away. Right?
Though the provisionality of queer ordinariness seemed ubiquitous, I wanted to think it through yet again, and for a moment I want to go to the early work of someone called Ernst Bloch. I want us to think through the ways in which, for Bloch—writing in one of his early essays of the 1930s as Hitler was coming to power—the atavistic pushes at and respaces utopian possibilities.2 So, for the people who were involved in projects of sexuality in the 1980s there was a sort of fight in the name of utopia because as you well know we were also coming out. And, I was a part of what was happening in New York. I had been a part of it, knew people who had died from HIV/AIDS; I also worked in prisons doing projects on HIV/AIDS. So, there was an anti-utopian project being instantiated. At the same time anti-utopia was integrated into the rhetoric of queer theorizing, even as in institutions, there was a kind of utopianism that was constantly broken by forms of atavism. And, we must think through atavism in several different keys. Atavistic temporality: students were feeling as though what they had brought had been abrogated. So, they brought something else with them. Alums...