David Ross Fryer was my teacher at university. His classes transformed my way of conceiving the world – they opened up theoretical and practical possibilities that seemed inconceivable within the social scientific framework that saturated the academic environment. And in doing so, they made me believe that new worlds, new ways of living, and new forms of gender and sexual existence could be created. They motivated me to sink my teeth into queer theory, feminism, and Continental Philosophy – but most importantly – they encouraged me to remain critical, to ask questions, and mistrust boundaries. David inspired me to think about how I live my life, how I relate to others, and what I do to combat oppression. My writing on Below the Belt is one of the fruits of that inspiration.

What a pleasure it is then to read and review David’s latest book, Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender and The Ethics of Identity. Like his classes, it has that rare quality of providing a highly accessible introduction to the main issues in queer theory, while at the same time making a very innovative contribution to it. Put simply, Thinking Queerly deftly strikes a balance that most academics (Judith Butler exempted) spend their careers fumbling towards: it can be easily understood by the layperson, but it also provides rich food for thought for the specialist. In describing and explaining queer theory so well, David re-constitutes it, shows how it can be transformed, and even transcended.

So what does it mean to think queerly? The first chapter, “On the Possibilities of Post-Humanism,” grapples with this question. According to David, queer theory is stuck in a rut. It has criticized dominant norms of gender and sexuality but has failed to truly surpass them. The problem with queer theory is its almost exclusive anti-normativity: in dealing with socially-promoted values about gender, sexuality, and the body, it has ended up simply lifting the opposite on a pedestal. Polyamory counters monogamy, sado-masochism sneers at vanilla sex, threesomes mock the couple, the transgendered body challenges the cis one, genderqueer and genderfuck attack gender normativity, and so on. In other words, various queer life-forms have thrown down the gauntlet and started to fight the governing straight life-form.

To be sure, the development of this oppositional stance is a necessary step in the struggle for liberation – something to be welcomed. But David argues that queer studies should not stop there, that the full promise of queerness cannot be realized within this kind of framework. Turning to phenomenology, which he describes as a philosophical tradition requiring the suspension of “all presuppositions and agendas in [a] search for truth,” David extends the critical gaze that queer theorists have directed at heteronormativity towards queerness itself (4). And his findings are noteworthy: queer and heteronormative modes of existence are not necessarily in substantive opposition to each other; there is nothing about heterosexuality, monogamy, cissexuality, and monosexuality in themselves that is anti-queer. Rather, the problem lies in the social status of these forms of existence, in the modes of normative discourse that give them such a dominant role.

In this sense, the normative is “a methodological enemy,” a way of thinking that circumscribes the possibilities of human existence to a narrow set of socially-enforced identities (5). For instance, as David puts it, “normative thinking is the kind of non-thinking we engage in when we refer to an unnamed doctor as ‘he’…when we ask our children if they want to have children when they get married…when we take for granted the way the world seems to be” (5). Queer thinking, on the other hand, requires us to “think, really to think, about gender, sex, sexuality, and indeed all forms of identity and expression as being open to various instantiations, as having multiple – even infinite – modalities” (6). In the framework David proposes, a society should not be evaluated on whether most of its members are genderqueer multi-sexual polyamorists, but on the extent to which it is open to a diverse array of “possible modalities of being human,” which may very well be limitless (9).

In encouraging us to think queerly, therefore, David seeks to undo a knotty philosophical debate, and ultimately move the discussion past it. As described above, he aims to replace the entrenched divide between queer and normative thought with what he calls “post-normative thinking” – an approach that does not get wedged in the binary between dominant and suppressed identities, but instead inquires into the various possibilities of gendered and sexual existence and the ways in which societies enable or foreclose particular options. Implicit in this theoretical move is, I think, an unease with oppositional discourses and a recognition that queer thought has not really surpassed the heteronormative paradigm. In defining queerness as the opposite of the heteronormative, the latter ends up being tied to the former, and even becomes weirdly dependent on it. Truly getting over modern heteronormativity requires defining queerness as something other than the purely non-heteronormative, thinking queerly in more transcendental ways, and pushing queer theory in challenging new directions.

Having laid out this vision at the outset, David then boldly implements it in the rest of the book. The second chapter, “African-American Queer Studies,” offers one of the best summaries of the various definitions of the word queer that I have ever read. But more importantly, it provides a critical introduction to a long-neglected body of literature, a much-needed genealogy of African-American queer thought which puts to shame anyone who believes that queerness and African-American identity are antithetical. David gives us informative readings of classic writers such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and bell hooks – and he also whets our appetite for exploring the work of modern African-American queer theorists, Philip Brian Harper and Robert Reid-Pharr. While all of these authors are concerned with analyzing and struggling against the combined weight of gender, racial and sexual oppression, David does a fine job of highlighting the often subtle differences between their approaches.

Chapter three, “Towards a Phenomenology of Gender Identity,” takes on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, two of queer theory’s most canonical thinkers. David argues boldly that “these theorists fail to offer a sufficient answer for how to overcome the oppressive [gendered and sexual] regimes they are exposing” (53). Having convincingly uncovered the historical contingency and tyrannical character of the current gender system, they are nevertheless painfully vague on how exactly it can be transformed. Foucault talks about moving people to engage in “the undefined work of freedom,” but hardly says anything further, while Butler urges people to destabilize the system by “perform[ing] subversive acts of gender parody” (53). These are hardly impassioned rallying calls, and according to David, “they have not even engendered a radical following on a small scale” (42).

To make matters worse, Butler fails to move beyond the scientific positivism that seems to be part-and-parcel of oppressive gender regimes. To support her argument that sex is a cultural category impregnated with assumptions about gender – and not the soulful and bodily essence producing gendered behavior – Butler relies mostly on textual analysis of the work of French feminist thinkers, such as Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig. But she realizes that this is not enough, that her “audience, academic and lay, wants evidence—cold, hard facts” (52). For her work to be applicable in reality, it cannot limit itself to the world of obscure academic texts. And to deal with this problem, Butler relies on scientific evidence – exactly the kind of move she herself has criticized. Near the end of Gender Trouble, she develops further groundwork for her claims by drawing on the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist. And in doing this, Butler again places science on a pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not the sexed and gendered binary is real. David thus identifies a hypocrisy at the core of Butler’s theory: she negates the validity of positivist science while lying in its bosom.

So where do we go from here? Can we overcome the dead-end in which Butler and Foucault seem to leave us? How should the current gender and sexual regime be challenged and how can we get over the continued obsession with positivist science that Butler subtly reinforces? As in the first chapter, David suggests that we should turn towards the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. He describes this approach as “a form of thick description of our experiences of the world [which] aims at uncovering the essences of our experiences as well as the structure of…consciousness itself” (53). Starting from the individual human subject and her life, and comparing/contrasting it with the life-experiences of as many others as possible, we can build up a knowledge of what is transcendentally true about sexuality and gender. Crucially, David emphasizes that this is not a search for the essence of – for example – what it means to be a woman or a homosexual. Rather, it is a revolutionary search for all those existential possibilities that gendered and sexed categories hold within them, one that is likely to uncover a multiplicity of possible identities, from genderqueers and ladyboys to men and women.

This challenge to established thinking in queer theory is laudable, a welcome revitalization of a drowsy academic debate. Nevertheless, it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. David argues that knowledge of gender and sexuality should be grounded in the sum of our individual experiences of these phenomena – but in putting forward this view, does he assume that all our experiences are of equal weight? In a world where heteronormative, misogynist, racist, ableist, classist, and cisnormative perspectives and practices are dominant, is there not a palpable risk that our experiences will be polluted by them? Or at least that it may be structurally difficult for marginalized experiences to be taken into account? Moreover – as fellow-blogger Julian Real has warned – what are the consequences of positing change in solely ideational or experiential terms? Will oppressive structures really be overthrown through a deeper analysis of our own and others’ experiences? And should we be ditching an oppositional queer framework, when heteronormativity is still in such a dominant position?

In the end, David’s book has left me with more questions than answers. But I am not disappointed: I am simply hungry for more. It is my hope that David and others will continue to take queer theory to new levels and to apply it in a variety of interesting domains, thus ensuring that it stays relevant in a rapidly changing world. The closing chapters of Thinking Queerly provide a glimpse at some possibilities for further exploration. And in dealing with subjects that are broader than gender and sexuality, David shows us that it is possible think queerly in many other areas of theoretical and practical life.

The fourth chapter, “What Levinas and Psychoanalysis Can Teach Other,” attempts to reconcile phenomenology and psychoanalysis, two philosophical traditions which have historically been at odds, by showing how they can actually complement each other. And in the final chapter, “Reading Responsibility in The Hours,” David gives us a beautiful interpretation of a classic film, while applying the seemingly incompatible ethical philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas to it. In this, he deftly combines Sartrean and Levinasian views of the essence of the ethical, showing through The Hours that it is found both in respect for one’s own inherent freedom, as well as in the responsibility we have for the fate of others.

Overall, in Thinking Queerly, David develops a treasure trove of useful resources. He turns a critical gaze on queer thought and exposes the dangers of a purely oppositional mindset. He also challenges canonical thinkers in queer theory, and moves beyond the poststructuralist critique by positing individual and collective experience as foundational for true knowledge of gender and sexuality. And in addition to these insightful contributions, he introduces us to long-neglected topics in academic and popular discourse, such as African-American queer studies, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis. But perhaps most importantly, David gives us a memorable lesson in heuristics: do not allow seemingly irreconcilable binaries to dominate your thinking – challenge them, try to bring them together, and you might find new worlds unfurling before your very eyes.

***For More Information***

David Ross Fryer is a Professor of Women’s Studies at Drexel University. In addition to Thinking Queerly, he has published a number of books and articles, including The Intervention of the Other: Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan. I highly recommend this book – although its title sounds very arcane, it provides an accessible introduction to these two thinkers, as well as a useful overview of recent developments in philosophy through the lens of the humanism/anti-humanism debate. Regarding the substantive issues that Thinking Queerly brings up, I have a hunch that Judith Butler’s somewhat veiled endorsement of positivist science has been reproduced elsewhere in queer theory – and certainly in my own writing. This could be an interesting area for further exploration. It might also be useful to read Thinking Queerly alongside Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. While these two books are radically different, they share a desire to move past certain roadblocks within queer theory and to put our individual and collective experiences of gender and sexuality front-and-center. You can read excerpts from Whipping Girl here and you might also want to check out the discussion that this book spawned on Below the Belt.

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