Claire and I were first inspired to put together the reading group upon realising how little gender and queer theory appears in many humanities courses, despite its centrality to intellectual history and its ability to reshape debates in wider scholarly realms. We come from different disciplinary backgrounds: I am a women’s studies student, and Claire is a classical archaeologist. Yet, arguably, for the purpose of this reading group, these disciplinary bounds were useful because they gave us something to transgress using the power of queer modes of thought. The reading group focused not only on queer issues and identities but was a point of inquiry into how queer theory can enhance any scholar’s methodology, even if they do not study gendered or queer topics. The theories we explored provided us with new ways of thinking which are useful for all modes of scholarly innovation, across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. We felt very lucky to have the ethos of Ertegun House, with its focus on interdisciplinarity, as a basis for this kind of venture.
The first meeting outlined the central debates and questions addressed to the foundations of queer theory, including crucial works by Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, and Jose Esteban Muñoz. From then on, we tackled the weekly themes of ‘bodies’, ‘time’ and ‘space,’ forming a comprehensive landscape of queer theoretical debates which touched upon multiple disciplines, including but not limited to art, geography, literature, philosophy, and science. ‘Bodies’ explored queer phenomenology and cyborg feminism, and we re-assessed corporeality and the transitive body’s sometimes undermined centrality to intellectual life. ‘Time’ called into question traditional frameworks of temporality and history, aided by Elisabeth Freeman and Carolyn Dinshaw’s work, and we wondered if it is possible to form kinships across time. ‘Space’ was an excursion into queer critical geography, which led us also into postcolonial frameworks, and we established how the concept of space not only refers to territories and locations, but, in light of queer theoretical developments, can come to describe bodies and identities in new and innovative ways.
Some of the critical questions we unpacked included how to think about and engage with ‘low’ theory, or modes of knowledge production which are not confined to set hierarchies. Learning and sharing ideas in an informal manner subverts traditional academic hierarchies, which serves to re-shape our own relationships to our research and our colleagues. ‘Low’ theory as Jack Halberstam defines it is ‘a mode of accessibility...a kind of theoretical model that flies below the radar, that is assembled from eccentric texts and examples and that refuses to confirm the hierarchies of knowing.’ (1) This was a useful way to think about how we engaged with theory; as scholars of varying backgrounds, we all had different levels of experience with the topics at hand. Yet the group was positioned to allow ourselves to examine how different modes of thinking could change our own individual disciplines. Gender and queer theory often questions the nature of knowledge itself. The sensibility that results from engaging with these theories provokes us to always re-examine accepted, hegemonic knowledge, and this mode of thought can be applied to any discipline. We discussed how a queer phenomenology can ‘redirect our attention towards different objects, those that are less proximate, or even those that deviate or are deviant.’ (2) What, we asked, are those objects in terms of our own research? How might we re-think the pathways on the margins of our disciplines?
Engaging with new and different ideas like queer theory gives us a new language with which to reach across disciplinary borders. We pondered Sara Ahmed’s description of disciplinarity: ‘Disciplines also have lines in the sense that they have a specific ‘take’ on the world, a way of ordering time and space through the very decisions about what counts as within the discipline. Such lines mark out the edges of disciplinary homes, which also mark out those who are out of line.’ (3) How might we think about being beyond disciplines in terms of our own goals and work? What does it mean to be out of line - and might we decide to step out of line together, as an assemblage of people reading and discussing texts? To be out of line in this way might help us productively re-shape the future of the humanities for the next generation of scholars.
- Jack Halberstam, introduction to The Queer Art of Failure
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
The reading list is copied below for anyone who is interested in charting a similar course:
Week One: Foundations
Think about the key questions and debates raised by the current intellectual landscape of queer theory
- Judith Butler, ‘Critically Queer,’ in Bodies That Matter
- Jose Munoz, introduction, Cruising Utopia
- Jack Halberstam, ‘Low Theory,’ introduction to The Queer Art of Failure
Week Two: Bodies
Think corporeal, sexual, transitive, sensory, visceral
- Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”
- Sara Ahmed, introduction, Queer Phenomenology
- Elizabeth Grosz, introduction, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism
Week Three: Time
Think (non)linearity, history, memory, past, future, present, eras, generations, lifespans
- Elizabeth Freeman, introduction, GLQ special issue titled ‘Queer Temporalities’
- Carolyn Dinshaw, Lee Edelman, Roderick A. Ferguson, Carla Freccero, Elizabeth Freeman, Judith Halberstam, Annamarie Jagose, Christopher Nealon, Nguyen Tan Hoang, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” also from the ‘Queer Temporalities’ issue of GLQ
- Jack Halberstam, In A Queer Time and Place, chapter 1: Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies
Week Four: Space
Think geographies, nations, architectures, landscapes, neighborhoods, public spaces
- Lauren Berlant, ‘Sex In Public,’ Critical Inquiry
- Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’
- Dennis Altman, ‘Global Gaze/Global Gays’
- introduction, Queer Geographies
Kathleen Quaintance and Claire Heseltine