Why Queer Theory?
As part of what is meant to be an ongoing interview for a bit of my next book, I asked Mimi Nguyen "Why is queer theory meaningful to you personally?". She put more effort into composing her answer than I'd expected, and wrote a 930-word mini-essay, which is reproduced here in full:
After all, a Minnesotan-raised, refugee-tomboy with queer tendencies has got to make meaning of it all somehow. At fifteen, my first attempt: I went the way of the Punk Rock because I had a burning desire to be an aggressive spectacle, to compound upon my Other-ness. How else (I thought) to counter the ways in which big-H History had thus far operated (war, dislocation, racism) on my small-h history but by becoming a different kind of alien? But listen: in Little Saigon I was a novelty and some people whispered, beneath cupped hands, that I was "white," while there's a punk song that wants to violate me, designated there in the liner notes as "a swingin' Saigon Siren."
And later I was an activist operating under the sign of "woman of color" but I had to remind myself all the time just what I meant. Later still I grew frustrated because I couldn't deal with the imperative to forge coherency and "identity" according to those deemed necessary revolutionary imperatives, and the specter of a unified "community" popped up again as our excuse to issue such imperatives. I wondered if our masses were only masses because we made them so, and I worried that my radical vision, engendered by "my oppression," wasn't good enough.
My life was saved when poststructuralist (and postcolonial) feminist theory first introduced me to deconstruction and (the unpacking of) binary oppositions, problematizing the supposedly universal, modern subject of Western discourses, humanist, feminist, or otherwise "liberatory." Cultural studies gave me a way to talk about the vexed politics of pleasure and representation. And when power became not a possession but an exercise, and the individual investment in "identity" became troubled, critical queer theory jumped in the fray. Pushing for transgressions of normativity, queer theory offered what seemed to me to be a strategy. The fiction of authenticity falls by the wayside where I think it belongs, and the logic of non-contradiction also gets the boot. In their place, a notion of performativity.
Queer theory gave me a framework for articulating my dis-ease with identity politics, no matter how strategic. These open me up to regulation, force me to invoke "community" (when and if I do) with quotation marks already intact. (What do I have to look like, be like in order to be allowed into the inner circle?) Among other things, I'm told (by some) that I should be ashamed of myself; I'm a terrible example. That, of course, suits me just fine. For instance, the assumed but unspoken subject of "Asian American" doesn't feel like me because I'm not an American born heterosexual male, and besides, I'm bored with cultural nationalist frameworks, they offer me nothing (critical) and certainly offer me no love. Dependent upon a heteronormative logic to perpetuate "community," I transgress. (A women's bathroom wall once demanded, "Sisters! Drop your white boyfriends! Have you tried an Asian brother?") The question becomes: do I want to somehow force my inclusion, or do I want to trouble the construction of an "Asian America" in the first place? Can I do both? (I replied in red marker, "No, but I have tried an Asian sister - does that count?") Can I critically queer this? (I really wanna.)
Queer gets to be strategic, then. Gayatri Spivak suggests there are times we must mobilize the necessary error of identity while simultaneously attending to the exclusions any identity politics actively creates. Thus "queer" -invoking non-normative sexuality, an antiassimilationist stance, a radically theatrical politics, a mode of critical inquiry, and, for some (and sometimes me), a problematically (so far) white episteme- gets around.
But again, I don't mind the instability, that gap of disidentification, and I like to make queer theory work for me. Such that I came here a refugee and had to be "naturalized," there is something incomplete about my interpellation as "U.S. citizen," suggesting the impossibility of fully belonging to the nation as well as the impossibility of totally disidentifying with it. (It is, after all, through the disciplinary and regulatory mechanisms of the U.S. nation-state that I am here.) Moreover, it seems I make a bad (diasporic) daughter as well; "unnatural" because of my bi-queerness, my penchant for loud punk music and supposedly "Western" feminist politics. The notion of performativity makes all the difference. In suggesting that there is no "essence" to the self, only acts whose repetition constitute an identity to be duly attached, queer theory's given me the tools to examine the violence of these other kinds of normativity that concern me. For example: those that define both nations and diasporas as given communities tied by het concepts of "blood" and "kinship;" and how patriotisms and claims to citizenship (to any nation, queer, diasporic or otherwise backed by state apparatus) are always repetitive performative acts that, as such, consolidate the logic (and law) of nationalism.
And while the so-far universal subject of queer epistemes is whiter, richer and, uh, more male than I might like, I'd like to queer that particular norm. (I'm a different kind of queer.) It's impossible, after all, to imagine that "queer" only skews gender and sexuality, and not race or class or nation, as if we might line up our social categories like cans in a cupboard, as if they weren't just intersecting but mutually constituitive. To hark back to my p-rock days when a lipstick-smudged Kathleen Hanna clambered on stage, "We've got to show them we're worse than queer."