QOTD (2010-10-22), “It Gets Better?” Edition

Joseph Litvak, as quoted by Eve Sedgwick in her Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity:

It seems to me that the importance of “mistakes” in queer reading and writing… has a lot to do with loosening the traumatic, inevitable-seeming connection between mistakes and humiliation. What I mean is that, if a lot of queer energy, say around adolescence, goes into what Barthes calls “le vouloir-être-intelligent” (as in “If I have to be miserable, at least let me be brainier than everybody else”), accounting in large part for paranoia’s enormous prestige as the very signature of smartness (a smartness that smarts), a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into… practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?

Now, I almost had a temper tantrum late last night because I struggle so much with understanding theory, and with understanding why I need to understand theory, so I am not one to tell you what this blockquote is doing in the chapter of Sedgwick in which it appears. But I am one to tell you that, “say around adolescence,” and even as early as my preschool days, I was convinced, as I still am convinced now, that somehow knowing a shit-ton would give me a sense of belonging that I could not find by actually belonging. Knowing that if I was doing your Latin translations for you, you had to let me sit at your lunch table, helped me through middle school. And difference, in more ways than simple queerness (if queerness can be simple, of course), which I suppose some might call a “mistake” of my birth and my early childhood development, became for me a métier and a route to self-understanding. And instead of letting the kids whose Latin translations I was doing tell me what I was, I took my cues from the books whose authors were able to write those books because they had taken their cues from books, and we all fit ourselves into a genealogy of queer reading, generations of around-adolescents who had been saved by the promise of another world, whether that world was one of Socrates’ dinner-parties or one of an alternate European history where the girls could be Cyrano de Bergerac too.

The problem comes, however, when you find yourself reacting this way to a paragraph dropped into the middle of Sedgwick, and knowing full well that your personal experience is leading you to draw something very different from it than what Sedgwick means to draw, and vaguely sensing that if you were a little smarter, or a little better socialized, or a full member of the club, you wouldn’t be drawn to so desperately misread one of the giants of queer theory. You find yourself remembering—as I did last night, when I stared at the pages of this chapter and panicked—that even queer reading can keep fellow queer readers out; can set up new systems of exclusion and oppression even as it dismantles and deconstructs others. When I turn the language of theory back upon itself it becomes harder to hope that I can be “brainier than everybody else” while still being “miserable”: the language of theory remains unchangingly determined to tell me, “ur doin it rong.”

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One thought on “QOTD (2010-10-22), “It Gets Better?” Edition

  1. CC

    >I almost had a temper tantrum late last night because I struggle so much with understanding theory…

    A few recommendations to help you clear up your “theory” confusion:

    John Searle’s “Storm Over the University”

    Searle’s “The Word Turned Upside Down” (on Derrida, but relevant to ‘theory’ in general).

    Chip Morningstar’s “How to Deconstruct Almost Anything” (ditto)

    Richard Webster’s “Cult of Lacan”

    Webster’s “Lacan Goes to the Opera”

    Webster’s “Structuralist theology”

    Webster’s “Lévi-Strauss’s theology”

    Stephen Hicks’s “Explaining Postmodernism”

    The above items are available online; Hicks’s book is a *must-read* (it’s one key reason I changed my major from English…)

    Additionally, some recommendations you’ll have to track down at a library:

    Gross and Leavitt’s ‘Higher Superstition’

    Sokal and Bricmont’s ‘Fashionable Nonsense’

    Raymond Tallis’s ‘Not Saussure’ and ‘Theorrhea and After’

    Patai and Corral’s ‘Theory’s Empire’

    >…vaguely sensing that if you were a little smarter, or a little better socialized, or a full member of the club, you wouldn’t be drawn to so desperately misread one of the giants of queer theory. […] can set up new systems of exclusion and oppression even as it dismantles and deconstructs others. When I turn the language of theory back upon itself it becomes harder to hope that I can be “brainier than everybody else” while still being “miserable”: the language of theory remains unchangingly determined to tell me, “ur doin it rong.”

    Bingo.

    Hate to break it to you (though I doubt I’m the first), but ‘Theory’ is a house of cards. There are some interesting ideas and valuable concepts in ‘theory,’ but the vast bulk of it is vapid or mundane, and puffed-up by deliberately difficult language. It’s like the pony joke: someone offers to sell you a room full of manure and you buy it, thinking that ‘with all this crap, there’s got to be pony in there somewhere…’

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