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Book reviews:
Queer theory books

On this page, we look at some books to help you into the world of queer theory. It also includes Foucault books. See the other book reviews too.

Three of the books further down are also covered on other books pages. But they have different descriptions there.


Gavin Kendall & Gary Wickham (1999), Using Foucault's Methods, Sage, London.

Well, this sounded like a bad idea, didn't it? Using Foucault's Methods? As if Foucault set out a set of methods which you could splash over society and culture to enlightening effect? I'm all for making things accessible, but transforming Foucault into a methodological handbook sounded like going way too far.

It's always nice to be proved wrong, of course. This may not be the best stand-alone introduction to Foucault, but as a companion to Foucault's original texts, carefully showing what he's done and why -- and how that could be applied elsewhere -- it's outstanding. The authors themselves acknowledge that you can't just simply transpose bits of Foucault to other areas of contemporary life -- indeed, they make fun of people who 'glue' Foucault soundbytes on to their cultural analyses. They even courageously criticise people like Stuart Hall, for paying lip service to Foucault but then slapping simplistic (and more traditional) power analyses onto sections of history without Foucault's degree of caution.

The style of Using Foucault's Methods is light and readable, but it's also a very intelligent, well-grounded book, based on a more thorough understanding of what Foucault was about than is often seen elsewhere, urging carefulness in theory whilst jumping brilliantly around various examples. It's not boring, but it's not naff either, and that's a triumph in itself.

They say some interesting things that I'd not seen before -- for example, they suggest that English-speaking people often misunderstand what Foucault meant by 'power', and that we're better off seeing it as analogous to the weaker idea of power in machines -- a process that keeps things going -- rather than the idea of power as strength.

At the same time, this relates to the one problem I had with this book, which is that its sensible promotion of cautiousness in using Foucault's approaches sometimes looks like the reader is being counselled to avoid political applications altogether. "The task of analysts, such as you and us, is to describe the way in which resistance operates as a part of power, not to seek to promote or oppose it", they warn (p. 51). Oh. I don't think David Halperin (see review of Saint Foucault, below), amongst others, would be too chuffed to be told off like this.

Nevertheless this is a very impressive, readable, intelligent book, and one of the best short companions to studying Foucault that there is.


Clare O'Farrell (1997), Foucault: The Legacy, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.

Edited by the delightfully interesting and energetic Clare O'Farrell, Foucault's Legacy brings together 73 (count 'em!) articles which link Foucault with everything from art and architecture to management and public relations!

We have a separate page about this book, where you can read more about it.


Jennifer Harding (1998), Sex Acts: Practices of Femininity and Masculinity, Sage, London.

Cunningly-titled, well-written, concise tome, which leaves the subtitle off the spine so as to unsettle your parents. Sex Acts seeks to apply a Foucault/Butler conception of the plastic construction of gender and sexuality to various contemporary discourses, medical, political, and from popular culture.

The latter was a bit of a worry to me, since Routledge gave me a contract in 1997 to do my next book on just that. But happily for me, the book is very good on medical discourses about gender, and on newspaper discourses about lesbian mums, but doesn't do very well at tackling the world of popular culture. In the introduction it says that in chapter four it will examine 'the role of the media' in defining sex and gender, but in chapter four itself it only discusses this briefly and vaguely, and with no examples. Instead you get a very good introduction to Judith Butler, which is fine. Butler is often criticised for not making it clear how her theories might be applied in the real world, and for a time it looks like Harding might ironically be guilty of this too. But the subsequent chapters on medical, scientific and tabloid discourses do this rather well. The final chapter, advertised in the introduction as an 'examination of the representation of lesbians in popular culture', will disappoint almost everybody as it is a detailed reading of one TV serial, and therefore not really an 'examination of the representation of lesbians in popular culture' at all. That's not to say that the shortish study of the BBC's adaptation of Portrait of a Marriage has any great flaws.

So, overall this is a well-executed and readable book which mostly, but not always, does exactly what it says on the tin. (£12.99).


J. G. Merquior (1991), Foucault, Fontana Modern Masters, London.

Introductory paperbacks on Foucault are always interesting, since it is possible to describe 'what Foucault said' in so many different ways. This, I think, is the nicest little paperback introduction to Foucault, being well-written, accessible and intelligent. The first chapter, 'The historian of the present', and the chapter on The History of Sexuality, 'Politics of the body, techniques of the soul', are very well done. J.G. Merquior manages to bring out the important stuff, and is knowledgeable enough to be able to answer some of the more pressing questions about Foucault's writings. (For example, is Foucault's version of history -- such as his account of ancient Greek sexuality -- accurate, or made up? Apparently, as far as we can tell, he got it right. Phew). Neat. (£6.99).


Annamarie Jagose (1996), Queer Theory: An Introduction, New York University Press.

Takes a wierdly long time to get going -- the good 1990s stuff kicks in a bit after half way through the book -- but the historical first half is interesting and informative even though it's not queer theory. And the good second half, which delivers what the title promised, is well-written and concise. Almost too concise, when you thought you'd got a whole book if it, but still. A nice little paperback. Good value for American viewers. In the UK I got it for £10.49 (inc p&p) from www.bookshop.co.uk; not bad.


Judith Butler (1997), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, California.

Not an easy read, but I'd read a review of it in Radical Philosophy which made me fear the worst, so then I found it relatively accessible. (The RP review, incidentally, ended up deciding that it was worth the effort). I like this one because it seems to pick up the Gender Trouble project once again. I'm not personally keen on the psychoanalytic aspects, but the stuff about the subject seeking an identity and seeking recognition of that identity is all good, and includes scope for subversion. I'll say a bit more about it when I've gone through it properly. Also see the Judith Butler page for basic Butler stuff.


Sexualities [journal], edited by Ken Plummer, Sage, London.

Sexualities has got it just right: it said from the outset (first issue, Feb 1998) that pseudo-scientific 'psychological' and medical approaches could jolly well go and find their own journals. With those folk carefully locked out of the party, Sexualities is the sociological and cultural studies-type journal of gender, sexuality and queer theory which is worth it for the book reviews alone. As with all journals, you're not necessarily going to be 100 per cent interested in every one of the articles, but this is achieving a higher hit rate than most. (Tim Edwards's weak critique of queer theory from issue 4 is discussed under Queer theory: Critics).


Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume One: The Will To Knowledge, Penguin, London. (First published: 1976).

Queer theory grew, basically, out of this book. Why? Because Foucault argues that the current Western social view of sexuality is not the sum total of knowledge gathered over the aons, but was invented last century. Our current discourses about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) suggest that these are distinct conditions, or identities; but to Foucault these are just labels put onto people because of some actions they may or may not engage in. In other societies which employ different discourses, these labels would just not make sense.
Foucault also argued that power is not possessed but is exercised; and the exercise of power produces a corresponding resistance. It is therefore partly because people try to shovel discourse about sexuality into the cupboard that it comes crashing out all over the place again.
[See the Foucault pages for more].


Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, Penguin, London. (First published: 1984).

For the reader with a short attention span, The Foucault Reader gives you a slice of everything, which is of questionable value since Foucault studied a number of different things in some depth and had corresponding changes of approach and direction. The History of Sexuality extracts really are a bit too short and limited to be much use; and you'd have thought they would have included the short 'Method' chapter from Volume One at least. But at the back you get three handy interviews where Foucault is forced to say what he meant a bit more clearly. And the cover shows a Foucault who, in death, has regained his hair. Uncanny.


Two books of Foucault interviews:
Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosopy, Culture: Interviews and other writings 1977-1984 (edited by Lawrence Kritzman; 1988), Routledge, New York.
Foucault Live: Collected Interviews 1961-1984 ("edited" by Sylvere Lotringer; 1989), Semiotext[e], New York.

Two substantial collections of obvious value, although if you imagine that the interview form will suddenly make all of Foucault's works, ideas and motivations extremely accessible and transparent, you may be disappointed. Nevertheless, the interviews definitely illuminate Foucault's ideas and approach(es), and are usually readable, and sometimes gripping, although at times one notes that Foucault seemed to have a surprisingly unselfconscious capacity to treat almost any question as simply an invitation to talk for 1,000 words.

The Routledge collection provides extra help for the reader, however, with little summaries at the start of each interview, useful footnotes, and a decent introduction. The Semiotext[e] volume heads quite radically in the other direction; it is difficult to imagine how they could happily publish a book in this state: the book goes straight into the 55 interviews without a word of introduction, and each interview is heralded only by a title. Details such as when the interview was conducted, and who with, are chucked unhelpfully into a list at the back. Nevertheless, it does have some footnotes, and at least the interviews are in chronological order.

The Semiotext[e] book appears to be resting on its laurels, then: but its laurels turn out to be quite substantial -- it includes all of the interesting interviews from the Routledge volume (some in different translations), and throws in three dozen others. Over 473 pages, from an early 1961 interview through to 1984, he talks about almost all the Foucault topics you'd expect, plus quite a bit about films, philosophy, and numerous other topics, including, at times, some quite personal stuff. So what we want is the Semiotext[e] content with the Routledge presentation. But clearly, in a simple contest the Semiotext[e] book has to win.


Two books called Foucault for Beginners:
Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic (1997), Foucault for Beginners, Icon, Cambridge. [Now re-titled Introducing Foucault].
Lydia Alix Fillingham and Moshe Susser (1993), Foucault for Beginners, Writers and Readers, New York.

I'm not snooty about the For Beginners semi-comic-book format; these books are often accessible but intelligent introductions to their subject. However, both of these Foucault titles are disappointing and even potentially confusing to the 'beginner' reader, as they introduce complex things so briefly, before whizzing on to the next topic, that you could just be left baffled. But both are quite good; and they are not the same.

Fillingham spends longer on the history and background of things, leaving only 15 sparse pages for all three volumes of The History of Sexuality. And near the end it has a nasty picture of a sweaty Foucault saying "Who, me? AIDS?!", which seems a bit uncalled for.

Horrocks tells you more about the life (and death) of Foucault himself, The History of Sexuality gets 40 pages, and it's all well done. It ends with a surprisingly strong attack on Foucauldian scholars and suggests that the 'cult of Foucault' is a waste of time, although quite why people shouldn't be making use of the approaches and concepts which have been described on the previous pages, isn't made clear. This book (Horrocks and Jevtic) is still the better one, in my view. Perhaps due to a meeting of lawyers, it has recently been repackaged as Introducing Foucault.


David Halperin (1995), Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Oxford University Press, New York.

An extremely readable and accessible book, which is basically made up of two long essays, 'The Queer Politics of Michel Foucault', which explains why Foucault's work was so crucial to our politicised understanding of sexuality, and 'The Describable Life of Michel Foucault', a discussion of the Foucault biographies by Didier Eribon, James Miller and David Macey. The first essay, in particular, works well as a general introduction to the post-History of Sexuality Volume 1 Foucault. It's moving and passionate, which is obviously rare in academia, and it's not particularly critical but that's not the point; and it's much easier to attack a person or set of ideas than it is to write an engaging celebration of them anyway. Recommended.


Gary Gutting, ed. (1994), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The silly blurb on this book's cover boasts that it is going to be the ultimate book for introducing Foucault to beginners, which isn't quite true, but for people who have read a bit of Foucault and are seeking clarification, insight and understanding, this is a good book.

Gary Gutting's introduction, 'Michel Foucault: A User's Manual', is concise and helpful. Jana Sawicki's chapter 'Foucault, Feminism and Questions of Identity' is good. And the book includes an entry on Foucault for a dictionary of philosophy, written by one 'Maurice Florence' in 1984. It is suggested that this was "probably" Foucault himself (in fact, when it was republished as part of 'The Essential Foucault', they had decided he definitely wrote it himself) which makes the piece hugely entertaining and revealing.


Clare Whatling (1997), Screen Dreams: Fantasising Lesbians in Film, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

This is not a book about the representation of lesbian characters in movies. Instead, and interestingly, it is about how lesbian audiences can appropriate female characters and thereby -- as the title suggests -- fantasise lesbians in film. Whatling begins with a story about how she had been invited to give a talk about the representation of lesbians in film, which she duly did, focusing (obviously) on characters in movies who were clearly shown to be lesbians. But she found that the interesting audience discussion afterwards was all about the female icons in movies who had been appropriated by viewers who either just had a crush on those women actors or characters, or who imagined hidden lesbian subtexts to the relationships in the films. It was this mode of viewing which caught her imagination and led to this book.

This is all good stuff, the well-written personal tone of the book works well, and it's a good film studies type book. The disappointment is that it's a book about how audiences use the media, but Whatling hasn't really spoken to anyone else about their experiences of this. It's a major omission, which the author is aware of, but does nothing about. If a student proposed this book to you as a dissertation, you say straight away, 'Well you know you'll need some interviews there...'. So that's a shame, and in broader terms it's rather embarrassing that film studies is starting to think about audiences but can't be bothered to talk to them.

But having said all that, it's a nice, enjoyable book if you accept its remit on its own terms.


Kate Bornstein (1998), My Gender Workbook, Routledge, London.

When this was in the Routledge catalogue, prior to publication, I thought this was such a cool idea and an exciting prospect. Routledge did a lovely design job on it; it really is done like a workbook and you could imagine packing it into your schoolbag alongside your pencil case. But I was really disappointed by the content... it just seemed too 'obvious'. The reader whom this book addresses is one of those male rednecks with a broken nose who you see in movies set in American military schools -- it assumes that any challenge to stereotypes is going to really shock you. But someone like that simply wouldn't be seen dead with this book anyway. Hmm. But I'm looking at it again as I write this and I've decided that, if you can get over its 'my gosh' style, it's got some good stuff in it. And the workbook format is clever.


Judith Butler (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London.

The one that started it all, really. Details of this can be found on the Judith Butler page.




Joseph Bristow (1997), Sexuality, Routledge, London.

Stylish cherry-adorned entry in the Routledge pocket-money range, this gives you a decent introduction to Foucault and then leads into his legacy in Judith Butler and queer theory. Centred on literature, though. But not too much. In fact English Lit students would want to know where all the novels had gone.


Kathryn Woodward, ed. (1997), Identity and Difference, Sage, London.

The chapter by Woodward, 'Concepts of Difference and Identity', establishes some (often postmodernist) concerns about 'identity' and 'difference'. Gets a bit embarrassing when she asserts that civilisation is in the grip of an 'identity crisis' and that nobody knows who they are any more -- she got a bit carried away there -- but it's basically a good start. The notable chapter here, however, is the one by Lynne Segal, 'Sexualities', which neatly introduces queer theory in a few pages.


Ann Brooks (1997), Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, Routledge, London.

The well-written story of what happened when a largely posh and white feminism went into the woods and met its colourful and diverse neighbours. (A fight, basically -- with far-reaching theoretical consequences).


Cathy Schwichtenberg, ed. (1993), The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

The one in which we discover that Madonna actually invented queer theory. No, really.


 

Featured on this page:
Foucault's Methods
Foucault's Legacy
Sex Acts
Foucault
Queer Theory: Intro
Psychic Life of Power
Sexualities journal
History of Sexuality I
Foucault Reader
Foucault interviews
Foucault for Beginners
Saint Foucault
Foucault Companion
Screen Dreams
My Gender Workbook
Gender Trouble
Sexuality
Identity & Difference
Postfeminisms
Madonna Connection