By Lisa Duggan
Parts of this blog post have been adapted from my 2014 American Studies Association Presidential Address, forthcoming in American Quarterly.
Have you noticed? The way that so many left academic couples divide up the intellectual and political world in their scholarship and institutional alliances? So many of the straight-identified men analyze the dynamics of class, and sometimes race, but leave gender and sexuality out. As a set-aside agenda of sorts for the women and queers to undertake. The female partners of these men often (not always) address gender and sexuality, usually along with class and race (though again, not always). It’s kind of like the primary responsibility for housework—there’s a double day for the feminized, who also legitimate the guys. Who can say he’s not a feminist, not a queer ally, if his consort and/or close comrades take care of that for him?
Of course it’s the scholars of color who do the yeoman’s labor to analyze race, and there is plenty of default white feminist and queer scholarship floating around out there! But in my primary field of American Studies, serious inroads have been made in putting empire, colonialism, diaspora and migration, and the historical dynamics of racialization on the central intellectual agenda along with the history of capitalism in left scholarship. A lot more progress than in, say, geography or sociology—the precincts surrounding the work of David Harvey, for instance. In those quarters capitalism too often seems to float free of colonialism and the racial state. Race appears as a topic, or a population, but not as a central historical dynamic.
In American Studies, the progress has not been easy or automatic. In her 1997 Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, Mary Helen Washington pointed out that relationship between the fields of African American Studies and American Studies had been distant and troubled. In that address, Washington is especially determined to outline the significant difference between simply including African Americans as a population or a topic, and the more challenging task of reconstructing the field with Black Studies as an integral optic and approach. The task is to reimagine the history of capitalism, for instance, as the history of racial capitalism, as Cedric Robinson pointed out so persuasively in 1983.
The challenges from the fields of Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies have all made waves, and all have encountered similar barriers when making the crucial argument for distinguishing between pleas for simple inclusion as populations or topics, and the fundamental call to reimagine the field of American Studies from top to bottom–the call that always meets with the most resistance.
In the most recent issue of Social Text devoted to the legacy of José Muñoz, Kandice Chuh formulates this issue as the problem of “aboutness” that is central to what she calls the “field coverage” model of knowledge production. She argues that questions like “What is Asian American Studies about?” or “What is Asian American about this book, music, or performance?” lead us into a “silo mentality” that cordons off critical challenges. Rather than engage the challenge of Asian Americanist critique in the quest to open new avenues of inquiry and raise reorienting or disorienting questions, the field coverage model allows the persistence of the patterns of ignorance that sustain hierarchies of knowledge in the academy.
When I was on the job market in the early 1990s, a faculty member on a search committee at Wellesley College piped up to say “People like you don’t even know who the presidents were!” I replied that I not only knew the presidents, but could describe their wives’ inaugural ball gowns. This weird exchange illustrates the reversal/projection whereby someone who knew nothing about the field of sexuality studies assumed I would know nothing about mainstream historiography—in which I had earned a PhD! Ignorance in this context, as Eve Sedgwick pointed out some time ago, is a mark of privilege.
Chuh presses for intellectual anti-parochialism that refuses “aboutness” and its practices—the adding of populations to classrooms and topics to syllabi without any fundamental reconstruction of our knowledge projects. She frames Asian Americanness as a problem space for the consideration of everything, from the onto-epistemology of modernity to the circulation of capital.
Gender and sexuality studies joins American Studies with this kind of refusal of identitarian logics, engaged with historical political economic forces and political aesthetic questions via a feminist lens, or what José Muñoz has called a “queer optic.” This is not simply Women’s or LGBT studies, aiming for inclusion in the classroom and on the syllabus.
One of the most important books establishing this broad ground of critique for queer studies within American Studies is Licia Fiol-Matta’s A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral (2002). This book does not frame queerness as the site of identity and oppression, joined with a plea for inclusion. Fiol-Matta’s account of the work of the figure of poet Gabriela Mistral traces the uses of this representation of queerness for the project of racial nationalism in Latin America. Queerness in this analysis is not the subversive outside of normativity, but is rather incorporated within the colonial imaginary as a site of racial and gender pedagogy. There is no way to overstate the importance of this book for the kind of queer studies centered in American Studies over the past decade.
Fiol-Matta’s book was followed by Roderick Ferguson’s groundbreaking Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003). From the perspective of transgender sex workers (and drawing from Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied), Ferguson launches a sharp and thorough insider’s critique of Marxism and sociology. Jasbir Puar’s 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, analyzes the work of queerness within post 9/11 imperial politics, as integrated within the “civilizational” discourse designed to demonize the Arab and Muslim world. In 2011, Dean Spade published a trenchant critique of the limits of law reform from a transgender perspective in his Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. Also in this spirit of queer transformation, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s 2013 poetic masterpiece The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study enjoins us to regard Black Study in the same anti-identitarian spirit of transformative insurrection from within and outside the university.
The impact of this groundbreaking work is substantially diminished when it is included, even welcomed, but understood as “about” LGBT populations and the topic of sexuality and gender. Such modes of categorization fence out the deep critical challenge of queer studies, adding in some scholars and texts, but leaving the overall project of American Studies relatively untouched. These strategies of inclusion leave intact conventional presumptions about who needs to know what, who should read whom, and where a given critical lens is relevant.
Which brings us back to that academic couple. Recently on Facebook, I asked the hive mind to post the authors and titles of work by straight-identified men that fully integrates gender and sexuality as an analytic. As I expected, there were some excellent books on that list—Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, Curtis Marez’s Drug Wars, and many others. But they could be listed, there was no avalanche, even drawing on every field of scholarship that my 1500+ friends represent (and quite a few of those authors were pretty queer, not exactly straight-identified even if heterosexually involved). It’s worth asking—does the deployment of gender and sexual analysis marginalize or ghettoize work by straight-identified male scholars? In order to become one of the Big Men, is it in fact advisable to avoid gender or sexual analysis? It sometimes seems that white guys gain cred/privilege/status by undertaking scholarship on race (in a way that many scholars of color find problematic). But that kind of crossover does not seem to work for the field of gender and sexuality studies. The cred can come from the partner and comrades, right?
I hope I’m overstating the current situation, in angry dyke mode (my favorite)! I hope the intellectual ghettos, minority set-aside programs, and political marginalizations are ending more quickly than I can see.