Queer is the universe
“The Stupid, the Proud”
The main point of this essay is to demonstrate the inherence of queerness to unusual discourses: social and cultural anthropology, ecology and theology. The words “queer theory” can be heard pretty often now, but what exactly queerness means? The structure and usual logic of an essay tells us we have to define the key concept first. However, already here we face a conceptual problem.
What is queerness? The term queer is in itself homological, meaning that it perfectly describes itself: the word queer is quite queer on its own, evading all possible classifications from the start, preventing us from fixing any particular meaning to it. Initially, in the Victorian age, the term “queer” was used to describe homosexual men, and, therefore, became a slur for quite a long time. However, as it happened with most slurs, it was slowly reclaimed in the end of the 20th century as a positive term for group self-presentation. Queer theory initially emerged as queer people writing theory about themselves: in the 1990’s the activists started to reclaim the meaning of this world, while trying to fight for their rights and figuring out, whose exactly these rights are.
So, the word queer already describes the specific features of lifestyle of queer people in their pursuit to evade existing classifications when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality and self-identification. In the most inclusive and obscure words we can say define queer as refusing to match the gender binary and the ability (or sometimes even necessity) to transcend such boundaries.
Speaking of transcending binary boundaries, it is impossible not to mention Jacques Derrida and his classical theoretical book “Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of human sciences”. According to him, the western culture is basically founded on a finite number of pairs of primary binary oppositions, which are structured in such way that they are intrinsically unbalanced (Male-Female, Mind-Body, Rational-Irrational, Culture-Nature etc.). The discourse, which is speaking “through” a person or a text, already signifies everything from the point of view of one of the oppositions. The analytical position “above” the fight is, therefore, impossible, and any attempt to claim a right on it is intrinsically ideological. Therefore, if every cultural distinction is based on such oppositions, we can say
that one can never be neutral: one of the oppositions will prevail in any speech. As most Derrida followers claim, it is quite easy to predict, which of the binary oppositions will be perceived as a leading one – the deconstruction of the patriarchal culture, done by his post-Marxist followers such as Chantal Mouffe, is based on the premise that the discourse is structured around what is called the chains of equivalence. Different signs are said to “mean” or refer to one another – male equals main equals rationality equals culture etc. Everything which can not be said to properly fit one of the oppositions “sides” (has a break in a chain of equivalence) is immediately folded into the conjunction of the other.
1 Philosophy Tube. Queer. URL: https://youtu.be/5Hi6j2UXEZM
3 Derrida, J. (1988). Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences
4 Laclau E., Mouffe C. Hegemony and socialist strategy: towards a radical democratic politics / translated by
Winston Moore and Paul Cammack. — London: Verso, 1985. — 197 p.
This is the way another chain of equivalence is created in the patriarchal discourse, which includes women, people of colour, LGBT, Nature, irrationality, weakness and so on. The main point of applying deconstruction is denaturalizing these chains of equivalence and showing their contingency and dependency on hegemony and ideology.
One of the pupils of Derrida, Judith Butler, later applied his deconstruction theory to human gender, deconstructing it and thus creating the theoretical field of gender studies. Following the main Derridean intuition of unnaturalness of the binary, we shall see how it is manifested in different fields of knowledge, which are sometimes unusual and are not perceived as having anything to do with queer theory in public discourse. In this paper I will set aside all the theoretical and empirical work done by gender sociologists or by researchers of political rights and equality laws and practices. This paper will be dedicated to a lot less researched topics, which are located on the periphery of contemporary sociohumanitarian knowledge, however, quite quickly-developing.
We shall start with contemporary ecological philosophy. As Timothy Morton, the founder of the project of dark ecologies or “ecologies without Nature”, claims, ecology means coexistence of species.
When writing about “ecology without Nature”, he points out that the dichotomy Nature-Culture is also structured in an unbalanced way, as all of the definitions come from the standpoint of culture. Nature as something homogenous and opposed to culture was being slowly invented by the Modern Era discourse. A modern era subject needs something to distinguish himself from – an imaginary state of “lost harmony of Nature”, from which a human stands out and where he can never return. Such subject starts to view the world as a system of symbols, all of which are connected to himself – in other words, the world becomes anthropocentric, while the “decorations” around are perceived as acting via the laws of Nature, which are the same for every actor and every place. But such point of view, from Morton’s standpoint, is discriminatory towards non-humans. Every actor has its own nature, consisting of a list of objects, needed for him, which he is able to perceive – not a single Nature for everyone, which is somewhere “out there” as a holistic object. In fact, according to Morton, the world consists of different entities, every one of them having their of understanding of “the world”, interacting with one another, while not really being able to distinguish different actors’ realms. Everything is connected to everything – and therefore, there are no such things as Nature or Culture: every entity is to some extent ambiguous and untransparent.
After developing a theoretical philosophical project of dark ecologies, Timothy Morton explicitly linked it with queer theory in an article “Queer ecology”.7 There, with reference to contemporary biologists, he claims that there is nothing “natural” about heterosexuality: on the contrary, life forms tend to be volatile, changing gender and sexual orientation. In “nature” the life forms, according to Morton, constitute a mesh – “nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment”. While talking about agency and actors’ freedom, he introduces a notion of a pile as a metaphor of distributed action. A pile consists of a number of objects, but how many objects is exactly needed in order for a group of them to become a pile? There is no answer for this question – a pile is phenomenologically perceived as a whole, and we can not break it down to the elements. The same works for ecological bodies (what number of cars is enough for us to call the global warming effect anthropogenic and sufficient?) – and the same works for the notion of queer (can we tell, when exactly a masculine person becomes masculine?). The boundary is transparent – and in different situations the answer will differ as well. It is not entirely clear how the transition between a part and a whole happens – and this, according to queer ecology, is not a problem, but one of the main characteristics of the world itself, which we should not try to “improve” in any way. We can point at a frog or a mouse, but we can not find “frogness” and “mouseness”: frogs are made up of bits of other
species, where were not yet frogs; in the same way we can not really speak of a climate change, because climate is made up of other smaller entities, which can not be broken down to concrete stable bits. The same goes for the transition in gender of the living beings and even the boundary between species. As Morton claims, citing contemporary evolutionary biologists, is fact there is no such thing as a “species” with clear characteristics: every living being’s DNA contain information about all his ancestors, and it may be really hard to distinguish, where is who. Nothing is self-identical: one living body lives in a constant change, giving home to other living bodies and being dependent on the third ones.
Contemporary political theorist Jane Bennet goes even further. In her book “Vibrant matter” she claims that these conclusions about nonhuman actors having agency and life being inherently queer work not only for living beings, but for all entities in the world. The concept of entity erases the boundary between living and non-living, making the fabric of the universe inherently queer: one chemical element transforms into another, non-life gradually transforms into what we call life (however the boundary is blurred, which is the main feature of the queerness of universe itself).
As we can see, queerness can be viewed as something intrinsic to the world itself – both to living and non-living entities. Ecology is all about the absence of boundaries not only between the sexes of a species, but even between species themselves. This makes all of us to some extent queer – both life and
matter as such can be viewed as something what has to transcend what we perceive as boundaries in order to exist.
This pan-queerness is widely manifested in human culture. If in the western tradition, accordingto Derrida, we treat the binary logic as a basis, in other cultures it is not necessarily true. The human beings, who exist outside of the binary logic, are considered to be sacred in many cultures – and such people usually play a very important role in the organization of both the social and the religious.
Speaking of queer practices in non-western cultures, I will outline several of them as most interesting, while pointing out that the category of “third gender”, as researchers claim, seems to be almost culturally universal and can be found in almost every “primitive” non-western culture studied by cultural anthropologists – from Africa10 to Polynesia11, from India and Thailand to Native America.
Hindustani hijras remain one of the most well-known kinds of third gender. As proposed by mythical epics, hijras were granted special powers of doing blessings and performing all the major rituals. An even more interesting third gender category is two-spirits or berdaches, found in many different variations among the Indians of the North America. A two-spirit can be described as a variation of our notion of transgender: if hijras are biological males, behaving in an effeminate way and performing either the social functions of women or that of a third gender, two-spirits include both MtF and MtF transgenders. By becoming a two-spirit, they enter a special community, which is viewed as existing closer to gods and spirits. The spiritual life of a tribe would often be structured around two-
In many cultures of Siberia and Russian Far East14 a shaman is considered neither completely male nor completely female. By becoming queer, a shaman comes closer to gods, who, as contemporary researchers claim, in polytheistic religious systems are often viewed as either completely androgynous or being able to transcend the gender boundary at will. The gender binary, therefore, becomes something characteristic to a “fractured” world of humans, where the connection with the Absolute is already lost and needs to be restored by people, who resemble the androgynous ideal more than others. The trace of this cultural universality can be found in western culture as well. In the dialogue “Symposium”. Plato talks about love, telling a myth about people initially having three genders – male, female and androgynous, then being split into halves by gods – and this being the reason of attraction of humans no one another. Such inherency of queerness to the category of the sacred is a starting point for another field of study – queer theology. While not reviewing this complex theoretical field in detail, we can say that queer theology is about making androgynous features of religious figures visible, reviewing as traditional polytheistic or animistic religions, as Christianity16, while finding queerness in the descriptions of the saints in the Holy Scripture.
Speaking of less metaphysical matters, the category of queerness can be applied to psychoanalytic theory. In a book “Can the monster speak?”17 Spanish queer-philosopher Paul B. Preciado reflects on the experience of being queer in a psychoanalytic community, where any resistance to gender binary is viewed as psychosis in need of analytic treatment. Seizing to be a woman, Preciado did not want to completely become a man either – not wanting to completely fit in the gender binary, which would eliminate the emancipatory potential of his project. He did not seek complete freedom, but he was looking for a way to escape the binary logic – which he did. According to him, psychoanalytic theory is based on local European narratives and identities, which are perceived as universal and free of political struggle. The Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is only possible in the political epistemology of patriarchy, which views heterosexuality as a political regime, which reduces human value to the ability to reproduce. Freudian psychoanalysis puts the figure of patriarchal Father first, deriving all the possible subjects’ wishes from its position in relation to this figure. As Preciado claims, the growing complexity of different gender and sexual expressions tells us that we live in an age of a gender paradigm change – as drastic, as were the paradigm changes in physics or astronomy – and right at the moment it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish and make sense out of them – as the theoretical tools and language constructions are not developed yet. However, the category of queerness seems to be a good place to start – because of its inclusiveness. Queerness can become the basic concept of a new gender paradigm – inside which all other concepts will start to emerge and make sense by addressing to a key concept of queerness.
In Nietzschean terms, queer is quite close to superhuman – a person who is “always in the state of becoming”, just like the original Navaho Indian word for “two-spirit” can be translated. Being queer means not stopping on any identity, just in the way Deleuzian nomad does not. In the LGBT+ abbreviature the plus does not simply stand for some more concrete identities, which just did not fit there in order to keep the abbreviature shorter. As Slavoj Zizek states18, the plus itself becomes a form of identity: you can be a plus, meaning you refuse to associate yourself with any collective body, centering your existence around an excessive element, which transforms the symbolic opposition of the binary into a constant antagonism, where the features of every side of the binary can be changed or
reassembled by a queer individual. Likewise, researchers tried to introduce queer concepts into even more ambiguous fields of study, where the theoretical foundation is even weaker. Sarah Jaffe, for example, published a paper on sociology of time, claiming that for queer individuals a predictable pattern of life phases (childhood-teenage years-getting a job-getting married-having kids) shifts, along with perspective on time itself.
Trans people can experience a feeling of lost time (which they lived with the identity they did not want to) or a feeling of “second teenage years”, where they have to live through gender socialization again.
Other researches were dedicated to exploring the features of queer geography and space orientation.
As I was trying to demonstrate in this essay, queerness can be found in many discourse fields, even in such ones as ecology and theology. Queerness is an interesting concept, which covers many meanings at the same time – which means, that it has to be clarified in order to become a full-fledged analytic category and be less metaphysical, but can be used as a means of finding unobvious parallels between different fields of knowledge. Not only the social or sexual relations can be described of having a queer aspect to them: queerness can be found in mythology, theology and even ecology, the concept of queerness being described as being fundamental even to the functioning of life or matter. Of course, the queer studies remain a predominantly theoretical field of knowledge, and the category of queerness – quite a metaphysical category, useful for multidisciplinary connection, but not implying some concrete methods of research. However, a quickly-enriching theoretical base will sooner or later lead to more empirical studies, which would be really interesting to get familiar with – and which will show the relevance of a new gender paradigm shift.
Bibliography (check in the file link below)