Queer performances, strange practices

GLQ - Perversions
February 24, 1995

Recently, at a conference I helped to organise on the work of Angela Carter, I was certainly not the only person to be struck by the number of times I heard the idea of "gender performance" repeated in one session after another.

The term comes from Judith Butler's immensely influential Gender Trouble (1990), and the complex theatricalising implications of "performance" are elaborated in many of the essays comprising her recent study, Bodies That Matter (1993). (Such is her pre-eminence in the United States that Butler fanzines have been produced by admiring graduate students.) Even if the complexity of Butler's ideas suffers from what she herself describes as the "sedimentation effect" of naturalised concepts through being endlessly reiterated by conference speakers, the success of her work is testimony to the far-reaching impact enjoyed by lesbian and gay studies. Indeed, it is difficult to articulate ideas about sex, gender and sexuality these days without making reference to one or more of the imposing contributions to the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michle Aina Barale and David M. Halperin, published in 1993. So great have been the theoretical and historical advances made in this field of inquiry that Keith Thomas was recently moved to write (in the New York Review of Books) that all historians, regardless of their sexual orientation, would learn much from adopting a queer perspective on how cultures organise their sexual relations. Never before has our chant at demonstrations, "We're queer, we're here", rung so true in academic circles.

Sensing that this is a rapidly developing area, Gordon and Breach has seized on the opportunity to lead the field with GLQ, and it comes as no surprise to find a new essay entitled "Critically queer" by Butler appearing alongside a contribution on "Queer performativity" by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: the powerful theorist of male homosociality and the epistemology of the closet whose research inspires almost everyone else working in the field.

Elsewhere in the first issue, we find a detailed analysis of Bowers v. Hardwick, the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of Georgia's anti-sodomy law. In addition, Paul Morrison provides a lengthy - if not a little long-winded - account of how and why "traditional narrative" (one adopting realist teleologies) is "at once heterosexual and heterosexualising." All in all, it makes for demanding and quite rewarding reading, even if one does rather get the feeling that the burnished style adopted by many of these queer analysts is excessively self-attentive. To my mind, this manner of writing frequently reads too much like the later works of Henry James for its own good.

The second number of GLQ follows a similar pattern, with four leading articles, and a brief book and film/video review section. Here, too, the emphasis is largely on literary and cultural representation, and includes a substantial interview with Neil Bartlett, whose adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was staged this summer at the Lyric, Hammersmith, to very mixed reviews. Although each contribution assuredly touches on contentious issues - such as Phillip Brian Harper's exploration of how interracial and homosexual relations threaten the privacy of white hetero normative ones - it is surprising that little space is given to debates about political organising, especially at a time when direct action groups are often at odds with those who have a more reformist agenda in mind.

By comparison, the home-grown journal Perversions is rather disappointing. Where GLQ at times gets carried away with its syntactical arabesques, Perversions is often plain to the point of being dull. Bringing together six essays of varying length and scope, this opening issue largely turns its attention to cultural and literary matters, featuring Gregory Woods on poems of black Afrian manhood, and Linda Semple on the lesbian detective novel. The inveterate campaigner Peter Tatchell recalls his appalling experiences as a young gay activist at a Communist Youth Rally in East Germany. For all its passing interest, much of this writing feels as if it belongs to feature articles of the kind now published in the much-improved Gay Times, rather than in a journal costing £24 a year, and hardly offering essays at the cutting-edge. Apart from the zestful, campy, and thoughtful essay on the lesbian flneur by Sally Munt, it is strange to find a decisive lack of the perverse in a periodical of this name, one supported by a highly distinguished editorial board. Perhaps Perversions might find itself a stronger sense of direction if it devoted further issues to those perversions - such as transsexuality, paedophilia, and bisexuality - that productively question some of the limits by which lesbian and gay studies on both sides of the Atlantic have come to define themselves.

Joseph Bristow is a senior lecturer in English, University of York.

GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume One Numbers One and Two

Editor - A. Van der Marck
ISBN - ISSN 1064 2684
Publisher - Gordon and Breach
Price - Ecu 32.00 (indiv.), Ecu 73.00 (inst.)
Pages - -

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