Stranger yet, after NYU’s Title IX office determined Ronell responsible for sexual harassment and suspended her for one year, a bevy of prominent scholars, including the famous queer theorist Judith Butler, penned a letter to the university describing her accuser as “malicious” and insisting that Ronell’s right to due process had been compromised. That so many prominent queer theorists and other scholars, including not only Butler, but also the respected gender historian Joan W. Scott and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, would defend a colleague against whom credible accusations of sexual harassment had been levied, seemed to puncture the outsider aura in which queer studies envelops itself.
Queer theory, a branch of the humanities that evolved out of the study of gender and sexuality in the 1990s, occupies a peculiar place in academia. Peculiar, because queer theorists often imagine themselves as radical outsiders, incisive critics of a system peering in from the outside to diagnose all that might be wrong with it. Drawing from the philosophy of Michel Foucault, who published The History of Sexuality in 1976, queer theory inherited his fascination with the “capillary functioning of power,” that is, with how institutions, norms, and even knowledge itself shape our very lives. As queer theory emerged in the 1990s in field-defining publications by scholars including Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner, and others, it presented as a radical critique of gender, sex, and sexuality that took the instability of empirical knowledge as its point of departure. Queer theory came to mean, in theorist David Halperin’s words, that which “is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” To think queerly, then, meant to think differently — and to do that thinking from the charged perspective of the margins.
Yet for all their claims to outsider status, queer theorists have been remarkably successful at embedding themselves in the very heart of academia. Judith Butler is a chaired professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Lauren Berlant, before her death last year, was a chaired professor at the University of Chicago. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founders of the field, held distinguished positions at Duke University and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Over time, queer theory broadened into the more capacious field of queer studies — or LGBTQ studies — encompassing everything from theory to history to sociology. There are now LGBTQ studies programs at dozens of universities and colleges across the globe offering introductory and advanced courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Ironically, as the self-identified champions of institutional critique, queer theorists have not always paused to consider how their own institutionalization might undermine their claim to outsider status.
In the case of Avital Ronell, an admired and institutionally established queer scholar, her defenders saw her and themselves not as the wielders of institutional authority that they are, but rather as its victims — the empowered masquerading as the marginalized. For those of us familiar with the trope of the “tenured radical,” it was an all too familiar irony.
If you press a bit harder on queer studies, other problems and contradictions soon come into focus. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have pointed out the field’s implicit whiteness, advancing what has come to be known as a queer of color critique of the field. Queer crip studies likewise arose from a critique of the ableism inherent in early queer theory. Others have criticized the US-centered solipsism of the field. And from a Marxist perspective, scholars have exposed queer theory’s inherently classist formulations and obsessions. Even as they have challenged queer studies, the field has absorbed many of these critiques, in the process becoming ever more diverse — or cacophonous, depending on your point of view.
Moreover, its paradigmatic insistence on opposition to whatever is considered “normal” has also led scholars to oppose or question developments that the vast majority of LGBTQ people consider to be progress. Many queer theorists argued, for instance, against the movement for marriage equality, contending that it would vacate gay and lesbian identity of its outsider status, which they understood as its impetus to a radical progressive politics. Such “mainstream” progress would, in short, normalize the “outsider” position from which queerness, and queer theory, draws its frisson and (allegedly) liberatory potential. And while those fears have, to some extent, been borne out, they in no way reflect the views or desires of most queer Americans. Indeed, some of the most vociferous critics of marriage equality are now themselves married to same-sex partners.
Queer theory’s problems and paradoxes are the subject of Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory, the latest book by Heather Love, a queer theorist at the University of Pennsylvania best known for her work on gay shame. Love returns to queer theory’s intellectual roots, tracing its evolution from not only the interpretive humanities but also the empirical social sciences, in particular the study of deviance in the second half of the 20th century. Understanding queer theory’s “debt [to] and disavowal” of deviance studies, she argues, allows us to understand its peculiarities. Underdogs is thus a careful intellectual history, sketching academic debates that emerged in dense footnotes and lesser-known publications. But Love’s careful scholarship can, at times, mask the book’s real aim, for it is also a blistering broadside against queer theory and an effort to explain its shortcomings by excavating its origins in the social sciences, origins that queer theorists might prefer to forget.
Underdogs is a story of missed connections and misrememberings that Love weaves together into a new “genealogy” of queer theory. In so doing, she seeks to historicize the field, that is, to treat queer theory not as a method that exists outside of historical time, but rather as its product. In so doing, she observes that, contrary to “the ruling mythology of the field of queer studies,” the discipline evolved from (and thrives) within the academy — the very institution that is so often the target of its critique.
Every epidemic requires a patient zero, every genealogy a point of departure. For Love, it is the work of Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the last century. In 1963, while a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Goffman published Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which he advanced a theory of “social exclusion,” as Love puts it, focused on “criminals, alcoholics, homosexuals, drug addicts, people with a range of physical and mental disabilities, and homeless people.” Goffman approached his subject by asking, “What is it that’s going on here?” He sought answers in the minutiae of empirical evidence drawn from a vast array of texts. Situated firmly in a respectable, white, middle-class milieu, Goffman’s method was, Love contends, symptomatic of the “pervasive culture of surveillance in Cold War America.”
Nonetheless, his work on stigma was revolutionary, for he sought to understand not only how it was created and enforced, but also its costs to those on society’s margins. “[M]ining […] hundreds of texts from many different genres,” Love explains, “Goffman captures the anxieties of a social world on the verge of transformation.” This approach set scholars to thinking about normativity and identity, imagining them not as essential differences, but rather as artificial constructs. Such concerns would be passed down to contemporary queer theory, which also focuses on the insidious operation of hegemonic power and the social construction of identity.
By weaving together so many different stigmatized groups, however, Goffman displayed a tendency to essentialize stigma, that is, to view the “categories of normal and stigmatized as if they were self-evident and stable.” Viewing stigma as a fixed phenomenon led Goffman to treat all stigmatized groups as essentially interchangeable, creating a “giddy fungibility of all identity,” in Love’s words, that “can seem to anticipate queer theory at its most heady.” Thus, while Goffman laid the foundation for a critique of normative identity by showing how subjective and fluid categories such as “normal” and “abnormal” were socially constructed, he did so in a way that tended to efface differences among stigmatized groups. Love argues that this “false universalism” continues to plague queer theory today.
This flavor of universalism also had political import, for it seemed to suggest stigma as the locus of potent political change. Like other radical thinkers and activists in the second half of the 20th century, Goffman at times appeared to align himself with the stigmatized, whom Love, following Karl Marx, somewhat abrasively terms the “lumpen classes.” “[I]n absolute dispossession,” Love writes, Goffman at times seemed to see “the potential for a transformation of society.”
Yet, while Goffman’s work offered a rich vein of thought for early queer theorists, they avidly disavowed themselves from his branch of the empirical social sciences. They did so, Love argues, not because they necessarily disagreed with Goffman’s approach to stigma or to identity, but rather because these theorists believed he was interested in describing the world rather than in changing it. Writing at the time of the linguistic turn in the humanities, early queer theorists viewed Goffman’s dedication to empirical observation as “mere provocation, quietism, or worse.” Love recounts a scene in which a student asked Goffman what his work’s “use” was “for changing the conditions” it diagnosed. Goffman allegedly replied, “‘I’m not in that business’ and stormed out of the room.” Goffman saw academic inquiry as distinct from activism, understanding, perhaps, that critique is no substitute for politics. But this is, to queer theorists, the cardinal sin of empiricism. However it might be dressed up, it is always an agent of stasis, of all that queer theory tells itself that it is overthrowing, challenging, disrupting.
From Goffman, Love turns to the work of Laud Humphreys, another American sociologist who in 1970 published Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Like Goffman, Humphreys was interested in the margins of society, in this case homosexual men whom he observed cruising public toilets (or tearooms). Humphreys, an at-the-time closeted gay man, acted as a “watchqueen” at these toilets, a lookout for the men inside. He not only observed the sexual encounters in the tearooms, but would also track the men afterward, running their license plate numbers through police databases and interviewing them in their homes on unrelated pretexts. Although best remembered today as a cautionary tale in human subject research — scholars conducting interviews, oral histories, and ethnographies are stringently warned to avoid Humphreys’s underhand methods — Tearoom Trade marked, in Love’s estimation a further step in the empirical study of sexuality that eventually became queer theory.
But the final link in the chain, and perhaps Love’s most interesting case study, is Samuel Delany, a gay Black author whose work spans genres and served as a powerful inspiration for queer theory at its incipience. Gender and sexuality scholars today are probably most familiar with Delany’s work by way of Joan Scott’s landmark essay “The Evidence of Experience,” which advanced a queer critique of empiricism through iterated readings of Delany’s 1988 memoir, The Motion of Light in Water.
Love revisits Delany’s work, in particular his 1999 book, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which recounted Times Square’s pornographic movie theaters and their shuttering in the mid-1990s, in order to argue that at the moment of its birth, queer theory rejected the interpretive empiricism that undergirded Delany’s oeuvre in favor of a radical critique of language and knowledge, setting it on the path it continues to follow today. That critique was defined by what came to be known as the linguistic turn. Across the humanities, scholars were turning against empiricism and social investigation, as Love puts it, using “accounts of the complexity and instability of meaning generated in literary studies in order to challenge the positivism of their disciplines.” That queer theory arose at this precise moment left a profound imprint on the field, as it employed these literary methods to question what we (think we) know about sex, gender, and sexuality. It was a dizzying moment, when the physical world seemed to flicker before scholars’ eyes in all its glorious surreality.
These methods had a political impetus to them as well. They insisted that the point of scholarship was not just to describe the world — as they believed empirical social scientists like Erving Goffman had done — but also to change it. This combination led to a profound and thoroughgoing rejection of empirical methods, exchanging them for, as Love puts it “a powerful form of critique on the condition that it give up its claims to produce positive knowledge or to account for what John Guillory calls the ‘human world’.”
Delany’s work, via Joan Scott’s essay, played a signal role in this formulation of queer-theory-as-critique that rejected empiricism for both epistemological and political reasons. Scott, now professor emerita at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, presented two contrasting readings of Delany’s work, centered in particular on a famous passage in which he remembered going to the Saint Mark’s Baths in New York City. In The Motion of Light in Water, Delany described seeing over one hundred men in a large room, “an undulating mass of naked, male bodies, spread wall to wall.” Scott first interprets Delany’s descriptions as those of a naïve empiricist, as someone who believes what he saw. But at the end of the famous essay, Scott contends that Delany’s recollections actually question experience as empirical reality, emphasizing instead its interpretive power that challenges “the discovery of truth.”
Love argues that this second reading, which has been so important to the field of queer theory and gender studies (to use an empirical yardstick, the essay has been cited over 4,000 times), is a fundamental misinterpretation of Delany’s work. Although Scott brings out the complexity of Delany’s memory, she “fails to account for Delany’s commitments to the empiricism that [her essay] polemicizes against.” Delany, for all that he challenged the unquestioning empiricism of sociologists like Goffman and Humphreys, remained committed to the liberatory protentional of empirical discovery. That is, there was something revolutionary in knowing that marginalized people existed and even thrived in the midst of a persecuting society. After all, Delany devoted Times Square Red to “people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, […] might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore.”
Ever since I first started to read in queer theory, I have been struck again and again by an unreconcilable tension between the field’s competing desires to question normativity and to advance specific visions of how things ought to be. Trans studies scholar Paisley Currah frames this paradox as a contradiction between “early queer theory’s Foucauldian approach” and “a sort of essentialism [that] inflected its account of queer politics.” Put another way: if queer thought is defined as the incessant destabilizing of authority, from where do the field’s scholars derive their authority to impose their views, opinions, and preferences on their reader?
It’s a paradox that seeps into everything queer theory does. It is also the problem that sits at the root of Underdogs. Part of it is the hypocrisy of queer scholars that clearly rankles Love. In a feisty conclusion, which questions whether a politics of stigma — the political project of queer theory — is even possible, Love notes that while “[q]ueer academics might be activists, organic intellectuals, radical experimenters in their personal, professional, and political lives” they “are also superordinates in the context of the university: professional knowledge workers, teachers, and administrators.” They may be critics of the system, but they are also its representatives, fully enfranchised within the very structures of power they critique. Yet, because queer theorists have rejected empirical knowledge in a firm embrace of what Love calls “the political and the methodological antinormativity of queer studies,” they are foreclosed from identifying, let alone addressing, this contradiction. It makes “it difficult to address our implication in the violence of knowledge production, pedagogy, and a profoundly uneven social landscape.”
These problems extend far beyond academia, though, as part of an ongoing debate about what progressive politics, queer or otherwise, should look like in the 21st century. Queer theory’s answer, Love contends, is clear: progressive politics should emanate from opposition to normality forged by stigma itself. Yet, queer efforts to forge solidarity among the stigmatized have foundered on the realities of the human world, on the unevenness in how groups are stigmatized and the differences in how they metabolize stigma into identity and action. The field’s roots in American academia give it, at times, an almost provincial quality, failing to account for how stigma functions in other places and times. Although queer studies has changed as a result of critique from crip studies, Marxian scholars, queer of color, and other burgeoning fields, its impulse to encompass stigma as a basis for intellectual inquiry and political activism remains intact.
Queer theory’s misrememberings of its own origins, which Love reveals was bound up in its political self-definition as an anti-empirical field, has made it difficult for queer scholars to diagnose their own methodological and theoretical shortcomings while at the same time eschewing the very empirical tools they might need to find solutions to them. Without a genealogical appreciation for how deviance studies shaped queer theory, Love suggests, scholars in the field will be doomed to continue reaching for a “false universalism” that will forever evade its grasp.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history at George Mason University, focusing on modern Germany and the history of sexuality. He is the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (2022). His essays have appeared in The Point, Boston Review, and elsewhere.