Questions for LGBTQ Worldmaking
Edited By Dustin Bradley Goltz and Jason Zingsheim
Foreword: Human Contingency and Freedom: A Response to “Queer Praxis”
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We live in a time when the movement for gay civil rights—pursued primarily as the right for same-sex couples to marry—has reached the chambers of the United States Supreme Court. More than four decades after Stonewall, the gay civil rights movement stands within reach of a major advance in the legal standing of gays and lesbians within our country. Perhaps it will be the case that history books written in the decades to come will identify 2015 as the year that the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.
Should it come to be that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States, that will certainly become a significant marker for gay and lesbian couples who desire marriage for its power to convey formal recognition of their relationship. It will also become a significant marker for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans—in short, queer—communities who have lived in marginal relationship to the mainstream of U.S. society and culture.
Yet, there is much more to the story of queer existence in the United States than the struggle for legal recognition. The movement for legal recognition is a social and political movement. But, movement at the level of culture is much less tangible and extremely difficult to assess except for perspectives engendered with the passage of time—far more time than the four decades since Stonewall. There is, of course, a strong relationship between a culture and its society. Society provides us with articulable norms and practices. We recognize the issues of the day as they circulate within our society. ← ix | x → We may not agree on the significance of these issues, but our capacity to see them at work within our social world can be relatively full. Culture, on the other hand, is often beyond our articulation precisely because it structures our capacity to speak and formulate thought. It is only through a comparative contrast that it becomes possible to recognize culture as it is at work in our very perceptive and expressive capacities. Possibility, however, is not actuality. Even given a comparative context, it remains very difficult to know the adequacy and accuracy of one’s assertions about “culture.” This is an epistemological problem wherein we recognize that what we know is always constrained within our capacity for knowing. And, while it is possible to detail the what of our knowing, it is a very different and much more difficult task to detail the limits of our capacity for knowing.
This is the point at which the dialogue among these authors concerning these questions of queer praxis comes into play. The epistemological challenge of knowing what we know as it is bound to our capacity to know, requires an embodied human presence that does not take its presence in a dynamic and contingent world for granted. And it is certainly accurate to say that the point at which, for example, anger meets decorum, we have an embodied human presence that cannot take its presence for granted. The seething anger swelling up from within, inarticulate and bursting, yet held stationary within a body that bears the chains of decorum—this is a site at which knowledge is beyond knowing in any formal or articulable sense. This is a site at which the actuality of our knowing beyond our capacity to articulate it, exists. Despite all of the social advances regarding the recognition and legitimation of gays and lesbians in our society, these advances would amount to naught if we seek, ultimately, to return to a position wherein we can take ourselves and our presence in the social world for granted.
The points at which the multiple tensions explored in this volume (temporality and shame, coalition, anger and decorum, future and futurity) collide are the points at which the immediacy of our own irreducible presence meets itself as it is inextricably interconnected with our familial, social and cultural worlds. None of the issues of cultural intelligibility and heteronormativity, of what is deemed socially appropriate, becomes tangible to us until the point at which we recognize our violation of it. To recognize one’s own queerness is to recognize that one is at odds with a range of normativities. To feel the seething anger, even when one cannot identify the specific source of that anger, is to stumble upon the limits of the capacity to know as it is engendered within heterosexual terms.
As I have read the dialogue among these authors I have recognized the many social issues of our day as they are confronted, negotiated, rebelled ← x | xi → against, interrogated and sometimes accepted in the lives and experiences of these queer academics who are unwilling to let the decorum of the day seal away their own capacities for knowing and understanding. The knowing and understanding presented in this volume are not neatly packed or finely organized. They are more like raw seeds flung into an academic soil—seeds emerging from experiences neither anticipated nor asked for. Anger becomes a nutrient and theoretical language, a soil where seeds are planted in hopes that they may grow into something healthy and sustaining (at least, I think this is the hope, or motivation behind the work). The effort here is not like a typical cycle of planting, nurturing, and harvesting. It is, rather, like the best of dialogues, unplanned and unanticipated. The particularity of these authors’ dialogues is something of an “inside job.” The obvious familiarity, common referents, shared experiences come through. The outcomes of this particular dialogue for these authors can never be known to the readers coming to it as we do, as voyeurs. But, of course, that is not the point. The point must be to continue the dialogue through our own reflection and response.
As we reflect and respond to the chapters presented here, I think it is important to consider the place and function of personal experience as it is related to formally recognized academic work. Personal experience is always particular. As something particular, personal experience can tend toward the narcissism of seeing the world only as it revolves around “me.” With this tendency, even my greatest effort to understand the world outside of myself is constrained by an insistence on my own place as primary. It is easy to mistake the significance of my own embodied experience for its relevance to a world beyond myself. Sometimes, however significant my personal experience is to me, it is not relevant beyond my own life. That is not to say that something that is not relevant beyond my own life is not important, or even precious. It is simply to say that a claim that one’s knowledge is relevant to and should be prioritized by a social world is a serious matter because of its potential to be wrong. The human world is too complex, too dynamic, and too interrelated to make the simple assertion that the personal experience of one is necessarily insightful for others.
On the other hand, it is through the very particularity of personal experience that our tendency to privilege abstractions, principles, formulas for correct or “just” action can be tempered. As the authors included here demonstrate, personal experience is messy, unruly, and contradictory. As we consider the particularities of personal experience, our tendency to assert the relevance of our perspective over others can be tempered, and thus cultivate our openness to discovering that which is present yet beyond our capacity to articulate. ← xi | xii →
Culture lives deeply within all of us. We all are inextricably immersed within the dynamics of power, domination and freedom that are essential elements of human existence. The issues of the day that we recognize and struggle with, both as academics and members of families and communities, are connected to the culture that lives deeply within us. The desire for freedom of human sexual expression cannot be spelled out within the language of civil rights, nor within any self-contained academic language. Rather, it is only through engagement with the very contingencies of our lives that we can discover expression through which human freedom is realizable. Queer praxis marks one such point of contingency wherein we can no longer take for granted the social world’s presence to ourselves, or our own presence to the social world. It is at this very point that the possibilities for human freedom exist. If our academic work aims to serve more than the cultivation of our own power and status within existing systems of recognition (thus legitimating the necessary exclusions that structure those systems), then we must certainly seek knowledge and understanding beyond what those existing systems themselves can recognize. The work presented here by these authors is, I believe, an effort in this direction.