Structurelessness, Structure, and Queer Movements
Darnell L. Moore
WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, Volume 41, Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 257-260 (Article) Published by The Feminist Press
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Structurelessness, Structure, and Queer Movements
Darnell L. Moore
Queer political work might appear to be grounded in a theory of structurelessness, at least as it relates to the making of an imagined queer community/movement organized around the need to alleviate the unbending boundaries and centers of sexual identification. Yet it is also true that queer communities can be limited by the very ways they are structured by and constituted through race, class, ability, and other forms of social categorization. Critics have rightly asked, for example, what is at stake in the life of the queer who is not white, able bodied, cis-male, or “naturalized” as a U.S. citizen within a queer (mostly U.S. based) political movement organized around supposed visions of structurelessness? To what extent does this “structureless” politics of identity attend to the needs of those who exist within the margins—the structure of the other—of an already interstitial space? What is a stake for the queers of the queers within a movement that might easily establish centers even as it seeks to destabilize the same? E. Patrick Johnson offers the following query in response to the failures of academic queer theory in the way that it attends to the material needs of the multiply marginalized: “What, for example, are the ethical and material implications of queer theory if its project is to dismantle all notions of identity and agency? The deconstructive turn in queer theory highlights the ways in which ideology functions to oppress and to proscribe ways of knowing, but what is the utility of queer theory on the front lines, in the trenches, on the street, or any place where the racialized and sexualized body is beaten, starved, fired, cursed—indeed, where the body is the site of trauma?” (2001, 5). In what follows, I revisit Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of StructureWSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 41: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2013) © 2013 by Darnell L. Moore. All rights reserved.
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lessness,” and complicate her specific turn to structure. More specifically, I offer thoughts on queer political work and the ways that the “queer” serves as a sign for structurelessness even while queer movements might easily prompt tacit and direct forms of remarginalization through a privileging of structurelessness. In other words, queerness seeks to raze some structures and fortify others. But what is the utility, if any, of structures within queer movement work when “structurelessness” is something of a byword for queer culture and politics? I argue that rethinking the development of structures helps to theorize forms of intervention, which allow for the naming and organizing against forms of remarginalization, in a queer theoretical project that is predominantly organized around whiteness.
Queer Theory and Queer Political Work: Against Structure
Queerness, in theory, is poststructural. Quite literally, queer theory is a theoretical project that is shaped by the critical insights of philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler (among others) who criticized structuralist paradigms by calling into question the limiting and rigid notion of conceptual structures (i.e., binary oppositions and its reinforcement of the sign/signifier/signified dynamic) imposed by and evidenced through language, discourse, and law. Queer theory also illuminates the ways that ideology (and its structuring impulses) works itself out in the domain of the material. In the Derridean poststructuralist sense, queerness implies a theoretical process of deconstruction or, rather, a move to interrogate and unknot rigid hegemonic sexual logics and representations perpetuated by and sustained through discourse and state regulation. Indeed, queerness is antagonistic to processes of order and regulation. And in the ACT-UP protest model, queerness similarly guided counterhegemonic resistance—a move to protest against and destabilize structures of “normative” sexualities and relationality as they shape the ways we exist in the world as gendered beings. Queerness, in praxis, is antistructure. Thus, queerness is a political posture that ostensibly seeks to redress, if not wholly resist, structure at the level of ideology as well as the level of the material, that is, human life. In this regard, Michael Warner notes, “The preference for ‘queer’ represents, among other things, an aggressive impulse generalization; it rejects a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance
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to regimes of the normal” (1993, xxvi ). Yet, and again, even in its quests to resist structures, the “queer” exists as another space wherein structure is once again reconfigured and operationalized, particularly as it relates to the ways that some bodies and political interests are made visible in queer movements while others are not.
Structurelessness Begets Structure
What is the utility of a mostly white and cis-gendered (male?) U.S.based queer movement for a queer who is black, or brown, or female? What is constructive about a movement that struggles to make connections between theories of disidentification and anti-identitarian politics, for instance, within a society that is very much organized around social determinants such as race, class, and gender, as well as their often violently consequential outcomes: racism, classism, and sexism/misogyny? What is the utility of disidentification and anti-identity for the lives of those whose white racial identities always enable their movement as unmarked and, therefore, always already privileged in their claim for an anti- and disidentity? Structures are necessary, I contend, to protect against the “tyranny” of a type of “structurelessness” that seeks to do away with those modes of power that in fact support the well-being for the lives of some queers. Indeed, if multiply marginalized queers are to list the types of discriminations they face within queer spaces—spaces wherein oppressions like heteronormativity tend to be named and contested even as some other types of marginalization like white racism are often invisibilized and reinforced—structures are necessary to ensure accountability. In addition, organizing/theorizing within queer movements must be guided by an ethic of justice that centralizes the bodies and needs of those most marginalized even within queer movements. The organizing principles of whiteness, able-bodiedness, monolingual communication (English), cisgendered identification, and other forms of privilege have to be continually revised and reordered. Structures are necessary, therefore, to secure a pragmatic set of political action for all queers. For example, my colleague Beryl Satter and I talked a few years back about the lack of visibility of black and brown, economically disenfranchised queer people in historical narratives that center on the lives of “the queer.” Our critique, however, was not enough to correct the erasure. Instead, we developed the Queer Newark archive, a structure
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of documents and material culture, as a means to render visible the lives of queer subjects who have been othered out of queer histories by, often, other queers. The archive is a necessary structure developed in response to one of the problems of structurelessness associated with queer theory and politics; namely, it provides the framework for accountability—indeed, the responsibility to name and redress forms of marginalization of queers by queers—within queer movements and community. It seems to me, as Jo Freeman notes in her now-classic essay, “There is nothing inherently bad about structure itself—only its excessive use.” And I would contend further that there is something inherently troubling about (queer) structurelessness when, in fact, it itself is excessive and ultimately reinforces another structure that privileges a few. To queerly disidentify is all well and good for those whose very claim to an identity carries significant economic and cultural effect. To eliminate structure in the name of a liberated structurelessness is to eliminate the possibilities for analyzing power relations and inequities while holding accountable those bodies and systems that multiply marginalize others.
Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist. He is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on African American Studies at Columbia University. He was the inaugural chair of Mayor Cory Booker’s LGBT Concerns Advisory Commission and is the co-chair, with Beryl Satter, of the Queer Newark Oral History project.
Freeman, Jo. 1972. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Second Wave 2 (1):20–33. Johnson, E. Patrick. 2001. “‘Quare’ Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother.” In Text and Performance Quarterly 21(1):1–21. Warner, Michael. 1993. Introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.