Heterosexuality and Gender Melancholy: Unsettling Passionate Attachments to Subjection (1)

Article excerpt

Within and outside educational settings the heterosexual/homosexual binary continues to be sustained by those who identify as straight and those who identify as non-heterosexual. This binary tends to reinscribe the familiar "knowledge" that there are "straight" people and there are "gay" people, and that these two groups are inherently different. For Butler (1997b) sexual subjects are interpellated through this essentialising binary, which is simultaneously injurious and the condition of existence. This paper makes some suggestions regarding how an Australian public art project entitled "Hey, hetero!"[c] has been utilized as a pedagogical device to both unsettle and, potentially, reinscribe this binary. In addition, the paper seeks to explain the persistence of this binary, in research and pedagogy, through a reading of Judith Butler's theorization of "passionate attachments to subjection" (Butler 1997b).


I can no longer remember exactly when I first saw the "Hey, hetero" pictures but I quickly became passionately attached. I thought they could be a fabulous addition to the introduction to Gender Studies course that I was then teaching. These pictures had the elements of a useful pedagogical device: they were engaging, as well as being provocative, fun, and ironic. Moreover, they suggested an effective pathway to introducing the often-discomforting topic of queer theory to my students. Later, I endeavoured to theorize the types of resistance I encountered when I sought to introduce these images into the classroom. Why didn't students seem to share my enthusiasm for the broader project of unpacking the heterosexual/homosexual binary? How could such a fabulous device fail to involve students in a sophisticated discussion of sexual subjectivity?

In this paper I contemplate the questions posed above through a consideration of Judith Butler's controversial explanation of "the desire for subjection," or what she terms "gender melancholy" (Butler 1997b, 140). I consider how this theorization of the subject might be instructive in understanding some of the processes that underpin pedagogy related to, and necessarily involving, sexual subjects. (2) Following on from this I consider how this theorization of subjection has influenced the production of educational research related to sexualities and schooling. I commence with a detailed discussion of the "Hey, hetero" images. These images prompted this study of some of the prohibitions that appear to be associated with pedagogy and sexuality, and together they constitute an imaginative public pedagogy and a valuable attempt to denaturalise heterosexuality.

Hey, Hetero!

Devised for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG) in 2001, the "Hey, hetero!" project involved six photos with text. These pieces appeared in 30 illuminated public advertising spaces in Sydney streets, a city station billboard, magazines, 40,000 Avant postcards [which are distributed freely through cafes and restaurants], two formal exhibition spaces, and online in February-March 2001 (Kelly and Fiveash 2001). (3) The interpellation "Hey, hetero!" introduces each piece, specifically hailing people, who as Kelly notes in a webcast interview, "don't usually think of themselves as a group with their own particular attributes, culture and rituals" (Kelly 2001).

In developing the "Hey, hetero!" project Kelly and Fiveash (2001) state that they deliberately mimicked genres of advertising in an attempt to access:

   the public attention accorded to commercial messages and denied to
   'Art' ... The project uses production values which replicate the
   standards of advertising: gleaming, stylised photography;
   sophisticated typography, copy writing and design. In this way the
   familiar, ubiquitous cultural artefact of advertising is invested
   with new agency: to participate in and broaden the discourses around
   sexuality which currently preoccupy urban centres around the
   world. …