Wishing for Political Dominance: Representations of History and Community in Queer Theory

By Mitchell, Peter | Australian Literary Studies, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Wishing for Political Dominance: Representations of History and Community in Queer Theory


Mitchell, Peter, Australian Literary Studies


Thomas Piontek contends that 'for many people their sense of being gay relies intensely on literary representations' (137). Though his argument refers mainly to fiction, in this essay I want to extend Piontek's contention and suggest that one's sense of one's self and one's sexuality may also have a close relationship to non-fiction texts about gay and lesbian cultures. Indeed, Michael Hurley points out that in the nineteen seventies 'The dominant genre of lesbian and gay writing was non-fiction' ('Introduction' 19). Among the most important texts about lesbian and gay cultures in contemporary Australia is Annamarie Jagose's Queer Theory (1996). The popularity and authority of this book in contemporary literary and cultural studies, as well as among gay and lesbian readers, make it an object of significance for Australian literary studies.

Lesbian and gay historiography in Australia, as elsewhere, has been characterised by disagreements: about ideology; about strategies for achieving legislative change; and, more importantly, about definitions. Twenty years ago, Dave Sargent suggested that 'Tension and disagreements are nothing new to the Gay Movement (163). (1) Writing more than a decade later, Annamarie Jagose uses the term 'quagmire' to describe the 'messy conceptual irresolution and the current debates over the terms connoting homosexuality' (Jagose, 1993 159). Jagose's metaphor--applied both to definitions and to identities--aptly describes the re-configurations in discourses of sexual dissidence occurring in the early 1990s, the most debated of which was the emergent category of queer. (2)

Within Australia, the publication of Queer Theory has contributed and contributes to these debates, presenting as it does a history of gay and lesbian communities and cultures in relation to literary and cultural theory. Within the book's historical account, the echoes of the nineteen-seventies and eighties may be heard, but the tendency is to characterise the nineteen-nineties as a decade of more intense social change than other decades after the Stonewall Riots of 1969. While I acknowledge the richness of the debates about definition and ideology occurring in the nineties, Jagose's representation of the politics and theory of the previous decades through a trope of 'the old' and 'the new' valorises debates about queer as more politically and culturally important than others that have occurred in the past. The accounts of political exchanges in earlier decades and, in turn, the writing of the histories of the gay and lesbian communities/movements as they have been figured in and by 'the queer moment', seems given, but is actually polemical. My own argument is that the post-Stonewall decades were and are periods of constant debate, and that the social formations of the gay and lesbian movements/communities and the institutional sites of gay and lesbian studies are fraught with definitional anxiety.

The term 'queer', a rubric for political and theoretical work that enacts continuities with, but differs from, the lesbian and gay movements, emerged 'in a period which has also seen the triumph of capitalism and a retreat from principles of social justice and the welfare state' (Altman, 1996 1). Its development coincided with the proliferation of post-modern discourses concerned with problems in representation, authenticity, subject positions, the body and the (de)legitimation of identity politics. The narrative of Queer Theory revolves around the binary node of determinacy/indeterminacy, constructing 'gay' and 'lesbian' as unified identities, and their related social movements as rigid political formations. Such a representation operates in the interests of the queer moment to enhance its historical intelligibility, and to displace gay and lesbian studies in academic discourses by the more 'modern' queer; further, by harnessing an ethical value--inclusivity--to this modernising narrative, 'gay' and 'lesbian' are displaced in literary and cultural studies. …

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