Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Are the Lips a Grave?

[Lynne Huffer. Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.]

When I write book reviews of scholarly books, I'm very conscious that I'm doing so mostly for my own benefit, as a way to deepen my own engagement with the ideas in question, given that the community-based character of my work means I don't necessarily have the kinds of opportunities for such deepening that might be available in more academic settings. Certainly I appreciate it when other people read my reviews and let me know that they have found them interesting or useful, but I'm well aware that non-specialists are unlikely to find what I have to say any more accessible or engaging than they would find the original book, whereas the fact that I'm not a specialist either, and don't approach the reading or the reviewing in a way embedded in the discourse of whatever specialization, means that people who read and write such books for a living aren't necessarily going to find much of value in what I say either.

I felt particularly conscious of this neither-here-nor-there relationship to the text while reading this book. I read it because it addresses questions that interest me, and it draws at least in part on traditions of thinking and writing that I think have useful things to offer -- in fact, even granting that two big sources of input for the book are things I have not read (the work of French feminist Luce Irigaray & the anti-social strand of queer theory), I was quite surprised at how much of the writing that this book draws from, references, and responds to is material that I have read or at least am somewhat familiarity with. And yet, even though there are some very specific ideas and conclusions that this book reaches that I want to extract and take up, the disjuncture between my own interest in it and the institutional and discursive imperatives that shaped the book itself were particularly...I don't know, discordant, discouraging, and hard work. Or something like that.

And here's what I've made of that disjuncture: First, I want to stress that I am not inserting myself into the kind of movement-based left anti-intellectualism you sometimes find. I don't think that it is a simple matter of "ivory tower = bad" and "real world = good" or of "difficult/obscure = bad" and "easy/accessible = good". Not that I valourize the former halves of those dichotomies either, but I definitely think that those of us who ground ourselves in movements and communities can learn useful and important things from work produced in academic settings, even sometimes work that appears very disconnected from struggle, and even work that may be incomprehensible to most people without extensive labour of extraction and translation. And all else being equal, readable and accessible is preferable to the inverse, but reclaiming politically meaningful ways of naming the world is invariably going to have moments of awkwardness and difficulty because we are pushing hard against the ways that most of us are taught to think and talk and write.

I also recognize that intellectual work done in academic settings covers a vast range, and intellectual work done in community and movement settings does the same, so generalizations about one or the other or the relation between them will inevitably hit the rocks pretty quickly. That said, I think one feature of much work related to the social world that is produced in contexts that compel obedience to the institutional imperatives of the academy is that its primary commitment to qualify as scholarship, especially good scholarship, is its relationship to other discourse that has previously been produced in such settings. And the specifics of its relationships beyond that will be shaped by this primary commitment, this embeddedness in a particular kind of discourse produced in a particular institutional setting. Intellectual work done in movements and communities does not have to obey this particular compulsion. I mean, it can, and I'm not saying that nothing I've written on this site or elsewhere does so, but I think movement- and community-based intellectual work is much more interesting when it consciously doesn't make this its primary imperative. I think it is more interesting when it shapes its priorities in relation to struggle -- not necessarily directly, not necessarily in a simple way, but staunchly -- and then shapes its relationships to existing scholarly and non-scholarly intellectual work in accordance with that. (And, no, this does not necessarily imply sloppiness, lack of rigour, inaccuracy, or distortion of knowledge in the name of ideology any more than the scholarly imperative to be embedded in scholarly discourse does.)

It is this difference that is the basis for much of my reaction to this book. The book asks questions I'm interested in, it draws at least in significant part from sources I find useful, but there is much of what it does that just doesn't resonate for me. Much of what it sets out to do is taking a number of binary oppositions and articulating ways that rather than the either/or of their initial presentation, we can take various steps to rethink them in both/and ways. I'm generally favourable to both/and, so in principle this sounds good to me. And in the book, the core binary that it wishes to bring together, and to which all the other binaries it deals with are related, is that between queer theory and feminist theory. Again, sounds good to me -- I think drawing on both is useful and important.

But the premise from which it begins is a very sharp, stark division between "queer" and "feminist." It points out that these two areas of scholarly work had similar origins, but they have grown in different directions, to the point where they tend to centre quite different and sometimes conflicting theoretical and political commitments, and it has become quite common to regard them as entirely distinct. But you can only maintain the starkness of this distinction if your primary reference points are academic theory. In the ways in which ideas associated with feminist and queer politics are taken up in movement and community contexts, while there certainly can be improtant differences in the ideas and politics of those who plant themselves firmly under one banner versus the other (recognizing each encompasses a very diverse range), it is actually very ordinary for people to embrace and enact both. Like, completely ordinary. My experience is no doubt not representative, but some of my most important movement-based political and intellectual relationships over the last decade have been with people for whom drawing heavily on both is just a matter of course. (And I can think of only one specific context outside of universities where attempts are made to paint as sharp a division between queer and feminist as is portrayed in the book, but I would argue that that is not actually accurate, and is done in a highly disingenuous way by a particular strand of feminist organizing trying to frame its feminist opponents as not-feminist.) So as interesting as I find the question of the relationships among queer and feminist ideas and politics, and as useful as I find many of the sources drawn on in this book, to me painting a stark division by only thinking about academic theory and then drawing the two into a closer relation via only the ideas found in academic theory, is not nearly as interesting as looking at the complicated and contradictory ways in which ideas exist in practical tension (and productive synergy) in movements and communities. And for me, those kind of complex reconciliations and engagements are actually a rich source for creating theory.

The other opposed binaries in the book all kind of follow from there. For instance, it draws a distinction between narrative ideas of self found in a lot of feminist theory versus ideas of the self in queer theory that tend to be performative. Right from the get-go, I just don't understand these two things as opposed. They describe different levels or scales of experience and self-formation, sure, and there is sometimes a tension between them, but I don't see any particular reason why we can't understand both as being useful accounts of how aspects of the world works. (I would also add that the way she talks about performativity felt weird to me, I think because she centres its use in anti-social queer theory, which I don't know a lot about, whereas my own sense of it derives from other sources. Particularly, she emphasizes the way that a performative understanding of self allows for bodily intensities to facilitate "self-shattering," or a sort of transcendence of that which we are told we must be. And in my understanding, certainly part of the work that performativity does is that it gives a materialist grounding for the important notion that we inevitably overflow what we have been shaped to be in some moments, but I would emphasize much more the role of the material repetition of gestures and practices that is perofmrativity in giving a materialist account of our continuity from moment to moment and how we are regulated to be who we are and act how we do.)

Another of the binaries that is related to the last is a politics that emphasizes intersectionality and resistance based on where you fall in a lattice of oppression on the feminist side, and "self-shattering" or desubjectivation on the queer side. (The two different labels on the queer side point to somewhat different approaches -- the former term points to, for instance, Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, whereas the latter is thinking more of Foucault's underestanding of the subject). Again, I don't see these two things as particularly opposed, and I don't see it as necessarily a problem to both embrace resistance based on an intersectional understanding of who we are as well as seeing value in transcending the kind of self we are told we must (and are shaped to) be. You can certainly find people who already embrace the importance of both/and in an explicit sort of way, though I think the language to really capture that is probably pretty rare...but that's fine, because I think the actual practice of many, many people navigating a spectacular array of experiences of being within, against, and beyond our current social relations embody a both/and understanding even if they don't necessarily articulate it that way. Which isn't to say there are never tensions between the two, or that you can't find instances of problems that could be associated clearly with one or the other. But if you relate to theory as something that is dynamically embedded in and reciprocally produced by and producing social practices, then this isn't so sharply either/or to start with, and you have rich resources from which to theorize both/and.

And one final way that I relate my reaction to this book to what I see as the differing pressures of intellectual work produced in the academy versus intellectual work done elsewhere is some of the choices of theoretical resources on which the book draws. That is, while I'm all for an eclectic and far-reaching wander through many different kinds of ideas in order to find things that work for what we need to do, there are some strands of intellectual work that I just see as less useful than others. It would be easy to read what I mean into the crude quasi-Marxist division between idealist and materialist, but that's not quite what I mean -- a lot of things that orthodox Marxist thinkers might dismiss as non-materialist aren't that at all (e.g. Foucault, in my understanding, is very much materialist), and even some that clearly is idealist can still be read in ways that make it materially relevant and useful, albeit sometimes only through a great deal of work. I haven't entirely figured out how this distinction works for me, but it cuts across the crude idealist/materialist binary in complicated ways. Take Freud, for example. In principle, the idea of learning about people and about the world by really close listening to what people have to say about their own lives appeals to me a great deal and certainly feels like it is responsive to the world. But even in the work of Freud himself, those close readings of encounters with people are drawn into chains of reasoning that link image to image, idea to idea, in ways that probably felt compelling in the intellectual milieu in which they were produced but that amount to gross and unprovable generalizations about how human beings work. And I think social theory that draws on psychoanalytic theory -- like, for instance, some queer stuff -- is just not that interesting because however conceptually beautiful or rhetorically compelling it might be, it has drawn far enough away from the lives and realities that it claims to theorize that I'm just not that interested in doing the work it would take to draw it back into the realm of the useful. Versions of poststructuralist thought that are very heavily language-reductionist often feel like that to me too. Not that there is nothing of value to learn there, but I'm wary. So in some of the work in Lips, I like the general political thrust and I like the places it ends up, but because some sections draw on sources that I'm wary of, it's not always clear how I should relate to the conclusions.

So. Elements of the premise and path of this book resonate with me while others do not, but there are at least a couple of the key components of where the book ends up that really do feel important to me. And one way to think about where the book takes the reader (in different ways across different chapters) can be found in the subtitle. The reconciliation between queer theory and feminist theory, as embodied by the subtitle's "queer feminist," is done in significant part by thinking about "ethics." Feminists have done a lot of work on ethics using a range of different approaches, though often in a way that doesn't escape the kind of positive proscriptions that can rarely avoid the danger of becoming normative and shaping new forms of exclusion and constraint (along with whatever more obviously useful work they're doing). Queer theorists, on the other hand, have often mentioned an interest in scrapping morality and replacing it with some sort of ethics, but have done relatively little work figuring out what queer ethics might look like -- and what has been done, particularly in more anti-social strands of work, tends to be very ahistorical and asocial. Yet through ethics, the book sees an opportunity to bring queer theory and feminist theory -- negative and positive, anti-social and social, desubjectivating and intersectional -- into tighter relation.

Also relevant to how Huffer does this is the word "sex" in the subtitle. Partly "sex" is relevant to creating a queer feminist ethics because sexuality is one area where divergence of queer theory and feminist theory been most noticed and discussed. But it also, and perhaps more significantly, points towards the kind of approach to ethics that the book advances. Specifically, it is a reference to Foucault's insight that the social practices and norms and circuits of power focused on sexuality are absolutely central to the shaping of modern subjects, and any ethics must in some way wrestle with that.

I'm probably oversimplifying, but it seems to me that there are two crucial elements to the ethics that the book advances...or at least two that particularly grabbed my attention. One, flowing from what I just said about the subtitle's use of the word "sex," is its insistence that an ethical evaluation of any situation must historicize it, in a Foucaudlian genealogical sense -- we must understand not only how the situation came to be but also how the subjects in the situation were formed. This is a recognition both that we have no choice but to act from who and where we are now, and that we must understand those things as contingent and socially/historically produced such that understanding the genealogies through which we have formed is a central part to undoing the constraints organized into our very selves through the workings of power.

And the other element of her ethics that really caught my attention was an emphasis on the "presencing of otherness" (not her words, but a quote from another writer). As far as I understand, this points towards a particular way of being in encounter with other people that prioritizes openness and deep listening. It is resisting the impulse to reduce the Other to a copy of the Same, to a thing that can be known and therefore deprived of agency and controlled. It is also about paying close attention to silence, to emotion, and to all that passes between us that is beyond simple propositional language -- all things which, the book argues, carry traces of our overflowing of that which we have been produced to be, of the performative excess that can never be fully contained by narrative constraint. And we can make those integral to how we learn from and relate to one another.

All of which may sound to some readers like it is at a bit of a remove from the most pressing concerns of movements and communities-in-struggle. I can appreciate that sentiment, but I think perhaps it overlooks the centrality of having a politicized ethics of relating across difference, both within and beyond our movements, to the work of building said movements. For all my ambivalence about some of the groundwork on which this ethics is built, I think these are important and potentially useful insights, and I shall continue to reflect on them.

(And I don't know if how I've described the book makes it at all evident why I say this, but there are a number of points where its more useful bits make me think about the "within, against, and beyond" of John Holloway's heterodox marxist thought, and of elements of the sensibility described by Chris Dixon as prevalent among anti-authoritarian organizers. But this is already too long, and I will restrain my impulse to explore those resonances more fully.)

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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