Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Theoretical Stories

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Theoretical Stories

Article excerpt

Theoretical Stories

Clare Hemmings Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2011 ISBN: 9780822349167 (pb) RRP: US$23.95

Janet Halley & Andrew Parker (eds) After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2011 ISBN: 9780822349099 (pb) RRP: US$23.95

Clare Hemming's book, Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, and Janet Halley and Andrew Parker's collection, After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory, reflect, as their subheadings indicate, on the academic disciplines of queer and feminist theory. Specifically, both are works that consider how feminist and queer theorists understand their disciplines and how this understanding helps shape the possibilities of the theory they produce.

While the two fields discussed here have their own discrete histories and identities, the resonances between them go beyond their overlapping concerns with issues of sex and gender. Both feminist and queer theory have gone from being marginal voices within the academy to relatively established disciplines with their own apparatus of canonical journals, authors and texts. Both have, in short, acquired a 'past', as Janet Halley and Andrew Parker phrase it in the introduction to their collection. (1) And with that past has come a set of shared stories that shape participants' understanding of their disciplines and their role within them.

In both cases, too, this past involves outliving the activist movements that gave them their initial impulse-leading to questions about the disciplines' continued relevance and fidelity to their original aims, often expressed in debates about institutionalisation. At its most extreme, this has produced an uncomfortable sense of both disciplines as anachronistic or as having left their best times behind them. Clare Hemmings writes in relation to the feminist stories that she analyses, 'in each narrative vein, feminism is always surpassed'. (136) Similarly, Janet Halley and Andrew Parker note in discussing the impetus for their collection, 'we'd been hearing from some quarters that queer theory, if not already passé, was rapidly approaching its expiration date.' (7)

This is the historic and institutional context of both these texts, and the concerns of both are similar, albeit addressed in very different ways. Janet Halley and Andrew Parker ask their contributors and their readers: 'What has queer theory become now that it has a past?' (1) Hemmings, on the other hand, describes her purpose as to investigate 'how feminists tell stories about Western feminist theory's recent past, why these stories matter, and what we can do to transform them'. (1) In short, both works are intimately concerned with how our present understandings of the past shape the future possibilities of feminist and queer thought in the academy and elsewhere. While they are very different works this similarity in focus allows them to be productively read alongside each other.

Hemmings' particular interest is in what she describes as the 'technologies of the presumed' in feminist stories of the past. (1) These are those elements of feminist history that have become commonsense in the field, the claims made in articles in feminist journals that do not require evidence or citation because they are accepted as true. Looking for these elements in 'gloss paragraphs, introductions or segues in articles that told a story about feminist theory's development' from a number of leading feminist journals, Hemmings identifies three dominant ways of telling the story of feminist theory's development from the 1970s onwards. (17-8) Hemmings terms these 'progress', 'loss' and 'return' narratives and she notes that all three will be easily recognisable to anyone familiar with feminist theory. The truth of this claim is evident from a very brief synopsis of the three major arguments.

Hemmings claims that her first category, the 'progress' narrative, depicts the feminism of the 1970s as admirably passionate but relatively unreflexive and marked by assumptions of presumed universality and essentialism. …

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