Queer theory and the building of communities

For those that are not included in traditional sources of community building — in particular, kinship-based groupings — the building of an ‘affectional community. . . must be as much a part of our political movement as are campaigns for civil rights’ (Weeks 1985: 176). This building of communities requires identification. If we cannot recognize traits that form the bases of our relationships with others, how then can communities be built? The preoccupation of Lyotard and Foucault, as examples, with the overwhelming power of ‘master narratives’ posits a conclusion that emphasizes individual resistance and that ironically ends up reinforcing the ‘narrative’ itself.

Ellen Wood (1986) argues that the production of postmodernist and post-structuralist theory is based on unacknowledged but specific class interests. A class analysis means

a comprehensive analysis ofsocial relations and power. . . based on a historical/materialist principle which places the relations of production at the center of social life and regards their exploitative character as the root of social and political oppression.

(Wood 1986: 14)

Such an analysis does not mean overlooking ‘the differences which express the social formation’, as Marx puts it, nor a mechanistic materialism, but it maintains that oppression finds its most extreme and violent expression through economic exploitation and alienation (Marx 1978: 247; Stabile 1994: 48). Stabile further critiques postmodernist theory as

those forms of critical theory that rely upon an uncritical and idealist focus on the discursive constitution of‘the real,’ a positivistic approach to the notion of‘difference’ and a marked lack of critical attention to the context of capitalism and their own locations within processes of production and reproduction.

(1994: 52)

She continues:

against the Marxist centrality of class struggle, and in an ironic if unintentional mirroring of the mercurial nature of capitalism, Michel Foucault argues: ‘But if it is against power that one struggles, then all those who acknowledge it as intolerable can begin the struggle wherever they find themselves and in terms of their own activity (or passivity)’.

(Stabile 1994: 49)

It cannot be overemphasized that capitalism creates divisions. The individual is separated from the group in fact: not only is labour power embodied in individuals as commodities bought and sold to produce profit, but capitalism is threatened by collectives for the very reason that groups and communities form the basis for resistance to the unequal distribution of the rewards of labour. The task of those managing controlling interests is thus to disentangle such units into their constituent individual parts. The defining aspect of class struggle under capitalism has been the creation and destruction of communities and the control over labour that results. The separation of the individual from society further serves the attempt to divide individuals from each other.

As individuals, we all wrestle with modes of social power that influence how we see ourselves and, in turn, influence our ability to react, defend and assert ourselves. Whether we identify as workers, gays and lesbians, queers, colonial subjects or racial minorities, there is a commonality in the way in which capitalism invokes these categories to maintain ideological hegemony. But recognizing the ideological means through which categorization and oppression operate does not negate the material foundations of their development. The ideological realm cannot be changed unless the economic basis for its generation is challenged and changed.

The connection of queer theory to social change in the 1960s

The initial entrance of social issues into the academy happened during the height of the 1960s, and this was an exciting period. Faculty and students were involved in social change and oriented their research towards societal transformation. For the first time, they were successful in involving the universities and federal funding agencies in supporting this research, which resulted in many books and monographs questioning the prevailing ideas of the day. These changes and movements were taking place in both public and private universities and forums. Students and faculty strikes closed down universities at elite institutions such as Columbia and Yale in the United States, for example, just as they shut down public universities such as the campuses of the University of California and the University of Michigan.

These movements gave voice to those previously underrepresented in academic departments and centres of power. Women were given voice for the first time in university power structures; vulnerable peoples were found writing about their experiences and having their views published along with public intellectuals whose intention it was to engage the society at large in the contributions of change. France in 1968 is probably the most famous of the movements that changed society and academic realities, but the massive changes in US education and cultural attitudes towards any number of aspects of daily living were also a result of this period of substantive transformation.

Much has changed since that time. What was substantially missing during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the changes in the disciplines that resulted from these movements was sustained theoretical debate, or for that matter a unified school of thought. Particularly in the United States, these movements were more cultural than actually transformative in nature. They rarely engaged working men and women and thus the productive side of social relations, even if the theory generated included an engaged labour movement as necessary for fundamental change. Instead, they concentrated on questioning prevailing beliefs and cultural practices that had been dominant until that time.

Queer theory as academic movement and subject

Because there were no sustained theoretical foundations, however, long-term change was easily thwarted by incorporation. Universities easily institutionalized questions of identity and social change: departments that now were named Afro-American studies, Asian studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, and so on all institutionalized the resistance that had resulted in social movements and transformed them into academic subjects and departments. Many of the leaders of these movements became academic faculty members and thus obligated to publish or perish, to enter the academic arena and play the game in the hope of keeping their employment. While their subject matter still contained the language of resistance, their writing and daily living belied their new status. Security has its benefits.

While this change was occurring, the society at large was undergoing a major alteration that was making both governments and peoples more conservative, while globalization resulted in new strategies for capitalist managers to accumulate capital. As an example, in the United States, what is now referred to as the Rust Belt — the area of the country that used to be populated by steel and iron plants — became deindustrialized as multinational companies found cheaper and less resistant labour first in other parts of the country and finally in other countries entirely.

Through movement, deskilling and the destruction of communities and through forced labour, capitalist managers attempt to maximize their positions. In the present era of globalization, the current processes of neo-liberalism have substantially weakened the government and public sectors — the very sectors that have traditionally overseen and funded public education. As wages drop as a result of global competition, politicians win office by promising to cut back on government intervention and taxes; the reigning ideology is that it is the government’s spending practices that are causing the problems of everyday life and the instability of families, not the constructions of capitalist competition that have transformed formerly industrial areas into low-paid service economies or regions of under- and non-employment. Communities struggle to exist as basic services are cut, particularly in urban areas, where primary and secondary education have already been reduced to ruins.

Many leaders of the movements in the 1960s became discouraged and even bitter that societal change on a fundamental level had not been achieved, and the constituents of these movements found themselves at a crossroads concerning why their actions had failed. Many activists turned against resistant action, looking for other theory and explanations of how society works and how individuals might find themselves adapting to what already exists. Importantly, movement theorists turned against Marx and political economy, which they saw as the problem in the variables that made up the methods considered during these times of mass resistance. The most visible of the various movements’ leaders joined academic departments, looking for space to re-think their past and their beliefs. These former vocal leaders believed that the ‘war’ had been lost, and the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a substantially more conservative era, where consuming became more important than production and thought more important than action. But as Terry Eagleton puts it:

what if this defeat never really happened in the first place? What if it was less a matter of the left rising up and being forced back, than of a steady disintegration, a gradual failure of nerve, a creeping paralysis? What if the confrontation never quite took place, but people behaved as if it did?

(1997: 19, original emphasis)

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