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  • "We Are Implicated":Queer Studies' Uninterrogated Elitism
  • Kim Emery (bio)
Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University
Matt Brim
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. xi + 247 pp.

Poor Queer Studies confronts readers with an uncomfortable reality: however radical or counter-normative the content of queer scholarship and teaching, our work cannot escape—or responsibly ignore—the context that sustains it. Brim establishes that "class stratification is an intentional, defining, structural feature" of US higher education, "as is race-sorting" (8), and his book grapples earnestly with the implications of this realization. In what specific ways does the work of queer studies function reciprocally to prop up the problematic system of which it is a part? What material actions can we take to alter this dynamic and support the development of a better, more inclusive and egalitarian system of higher education? In the face of general complacency, Brim effects an intervention, a reorientation, and a remediation. Poor Queer Studies asks us to see things differently, to read against the grain of queer studies' self-congratulatory self-concept; it also tries to teach us how.

Brim brings us to the campus where he teaches by way of the fictional institutions described in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own: "Fernham," the poor women's college whose students subsist on stringy beef and watery prunes, and "Oxbridge," where self-satisfied men enjoy sumptuous fine dining. While Brim's students are more likely to procure dinner from an understocked vending machine, his point is clear: the College of Staten Island is not well resourced, and the teaching and learning that take place there are conditioned by the material circumstances of their production. The binary division between "Poor Queer Studies" [End Page 309] (PQS), as practiced at CSI and its peers, and the better-known "Rich Queer Studies" (RQS), undertaken by famous people at elite institutions, frames Brim's book and provides its title. Colloquially, he explains, "queer studies" really means rich queer studies: the scholars we've heard of and books that we've read. PQS, in turn, is rendered invisible, perhaps unimaginable—at best a belated, imitative approximation of the field-defining work being done at the places that actually matter. Brim contests this narrative both because it is demonstrably false and because it obscures the extent to which (rich) queer studies is "implicated"—Allan Bérubé's indictment (14)—in the racist, exclusionary, and anti-egalitarian social function of those elite institutions to which the field has hitched its star.

Refusing abstraction in favor of material specificity, Brim "tell[s] the story of CSI in granular detail" (34), relating its remarkable queer history and ongoing present. His accounting contravenes the myth that queer studies was invented at elite institutions (and in the late '80s) and challenges the presumption that they comprise the field's center of gravity today. He contends that the field gained recognition through strategic affiliation with high-status institutions deeply implicated in race-sorting and class stratification, however. Rather than write off "vocational training" as déclassé, dumbed-down, and appropriate only for nonelites, Brim proposes that PQS pedagogies might help to remediate RQS's broad ignorance around class, labor, and political economy. He also describes the living arrangements, familial attachments, and daily commutes of CSI students, exploring how these lived realities inform students' intellectual lives and academic engagement. Eventually, Brim brings the theme of remediation to the fore, offering John Keene's experimental novel Counternarratives as a "primer" for overcoming higher education's "informed illiteracy" (172) around Black queer knowledge practices and as a model for anti-elitist general education. A brief epilogue sketches Brim's proposal of "queer ferrying" as a strategy less for eliminating material inequities between institutions than for mitigating them by "facilitat[ing] dynamic movement between centers and margins" in order to encourage "class and status crossing over and exchange" (199).

This might seem (and may be) a modest goal, in light of Brim's far-reaching critique, but it is consistent with his methodology of "critical compromise" (10) and general ethos. Where Poor Queer Studies offers field-upending provocations, its author comes across as modest and pragmatic, evincing an...


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pp. 309-311
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