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Queer Universal


Recent feminist and queer theorizations have turned emphatically away from the ambitions of late twentieth-century universalism in favor of particular forms of life. Lightning, atoms, jellyfish, and fetuses teem from the pages of prominent journals, as do HeLa cells, extinct aurouchs, wooly coral reefs, sacred pipestone, indigenous cosmologies, toxic dumps, and transgender frogs. This patchwork of objects and life-forms has much to say about the ineradicable openness of the world, its disregard for niceties of category and scale. Think, for example, of the many and varied effects of plastic. From problems of sexual differentiation feared for BPA-exposed children to the marine life slowly starving from the microplastic remains of tampon applicators they have mistakenly consumed, plastics make palpable the interchanges between gender, sexuality, and ecology. In a similar fashion, HeLa cells underscore the inextricability of biomedical mattering from racial pseudoscience, a formation Harriet Washington calls “medical apartheid.” Humbled before the animations of objects, contemporary queer and feminist theorists are content to let them speak—at least mostly—for themselves.

This reticence also takes the form of the imperative. We are enjoined to resist the temptation to add things up. In their introduction to GLQ’s “Queer Inhumanisms” issue, Dana Luciano and Mel Chen argue that “particular situations” cannot be summarized in total or “proclaimed from above” without undue violence to the specificity of each life world. In like manner, Karen Barad, whose work on the philosophical implications of quantum physics raises thorny questions about the universal and the particular, explains that the queer critters that march through her writings are not there to “make trans or queer into universal features” but instead “to make plain the undoing of universality, the importance of the radical specificity of materiality as iterative materialization.” A physicist herself, Barad’s most striking formulations describe the basic units of reality. Yet rather than setting out the laws of physics, Barad labors to reveal the fundamental contingency of all things, even the most apparently immutable. In these feminist and queer returns to the natural and the ontological—territories once considered coextensive with racist and misogynist essentialisms—it is the material world itself (and not discourse, language, history, or culture) that is radically open to revolutionary change, if not its very wellspring. It is for this reason that J. Jack Halberstam finds that attending to individuals in their precarious specificities “allows us to find our way through the thick material of the universal to the queer theoretical spaces of possibility.”

We are, in other words, in the midst of a new queer particularism. While universalizing theories engender powerful explanatory structures, queer particularism is less committed to knowing things than it is to feeling them. Under the sign of epistemology, humanists and social scientists have staked their claims for political efficacy on the ground of vigorous, truthful, and well-formed descriptions of urgent social problems, with the tacit assumption that such descriptions will engender changed attitudes and actions. Queer particularism takes root in the several schools that have arisen to challenge this assumption, most notably affect theory, new materialism, and speculative realism. These schools seek to evade the closed circle of knower and known and to allow for the agency of other-than-human forces. Together, these fields have begun to put pressure on how knowledge leads to social change. They point to the powerful persuasive effects of aesthetics and style, of sensory intuition, bodily habit, collective entrainment, and other modes of noncognition as well as the force exerted by nonhuman agents of various kinds, from the built environment to the unintentional distribution of psychopharmaceuticals in the waterways.

Or, as Barad asks, “What could be more queer than an atom?” This queer particularism is new, then, insofar as it locates queerness outside of both desire and epistemology. In this sense, it repeats with a difference the terms of the binary opposition upon which queer theory first found its method and its motive. For, in many ways, it was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s decision to situate the particularity of gay and lesbian experience within the matrix of heterosexual definition that founded the contemporary practice of queer theory as universalist. Rather than arguing for inclusion or touting a uniquely queer aesthetics, Sedgwick’s monumental and field-defining Epistemology of the Closet (published in 1990) argues for the structuring co-constitution of hetero- and homosexual definition. Her question is not how best to support and advocate for queer communities and persons, but why such support is necessary to begin with. She asks what forces drive the explosiveness of homophobic violence just as we might summarize Judith Butler’s contemporaneous Gender Trouble as asking what fuels misogyny. What Sedgwick finds requires leaving aside particularist (or what she calls “minoritizing”) identity formations to recognize the mutually constitutive double bind of homo/heterosexual definition, its structuring paranoia, and its many costly disavowals. It is this sense that she gives to the universalizing view, which sees sexuality as “an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities.” Sexual definition precedes the sense and meaning of particular forms of sexual subjectivity and sexed materiality. What matters is the terrain of sexual subjectification from which both hetero- and homosexualities derive their meanings and worldly dispositions.

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