Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Signifying "Lesbian"/strategizing Error

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Signifying "Lesbian"/strategizing Error

Article excerpt

Departments of English and Theatre

Glendon College, York University

North York, Ontario

This article is part of a longer study on the discursive constitution of same-sex relations. The author here attempts to disrupt the seeming fixity of the term "lesbian" through exploring the shifts in the discourse of desire, and to explore the political impact of differing lexical distinctions, such as "lesbian feminist" and "postmodern lesbian."

Cet article est issu d'une etude sur la construction des rapports entre les personnes du meme sexe. L'auteur tente d'interrompre la fixite du terme "lesbienne" en explorant le flux dans les discussions autour du desir; il tente egalement d'explorer l'impact politique qu'ont les differences lexicales comme par exemple, "feministe lesbienne" et "lesbienne post-moderne."

"Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it." -- Michael Foucault

"A strategy suits a situation; a strategy is not a theory." -- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

In "Critically Queer," the final chapter of Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of `Sex', Judith Butler comments that "Neither power nor discourse are rendered anew at every moment; they are not as weightless as the utopics of radical resignification might imply" (p. 224). While Butler offers this point to preface her discussion of the complexities that attend the entry of the term "queer" into contemporary theoretical discourse, she could equally apply it to debates that erupted during the 1980s over the discursive limits of the terms "lesbian" and "gay." Indeed, the ascendancy of "queer" as a self-nomination in the lexicon of items signifying same-sex desire during the 1990s partially results from frustration with the universalizing acceptance of "lesbian" and "gay" by English-speaking subjects during the previous decade. Presumably Butler recognizes this when she observes that "discourse has a history that not only precedes but conditions its contemporary usages" (Bodies, p. 227). Certainly, the idea allows her to voice the irony that I explore in this paper -- namely that "the terms to which we do, nevertheless, lay claim, the terms through which we insist on politicizing identity and desire, often demand a turn against this constitutive historicity" (Bodies, p. 227).

During the 1980s, the discourse of identity and desire utilized by subjects resistant to the hegemonic control of heterosexuality realized an important shift, one that current debates about the term "queer" revisit. While the emergence of this shift can be situated in the "sex wars" that fractured the movement for lesbian and gay rights in the early 1980s, its origins lie in the nomenclature of sexual division legitimated by sexologists in the late nineteenth century. In the oft-quoted first paragraph of Epistemology of the Closet, published in 1990, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes that "an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition" (p. 1). With the luxury of hindsight, I suggest that debates about sexuality and identity which erupted inside liberationist movements during the 1980s provide a vigorous example of this analysis. Contemporary arguments about the term "queer" perpetuate analysis of a concern central to these debates -- the problematic of "sex" (1) and its use as a master category of identity politics. (2) By the late 1990s, a number of these arguments have coalesced into positions in contemporary critical theory.

Positioning "Queer" in Contemporary "Identity" Discourse

One such position is performed by theorists for whom the concept of the sexual binary encoded by nineteenth-century sexologists creates "a heteronormative understanding of society" (Warner, p. …

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