A review from Affilia, Spring 2003

A Genealogy of Queer Theory
By William B. Turner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, 256 pp., $69.50 (hardbound), $22.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Michele Aina Barale, Department of English, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Turner's analysis of the "political and intellectual terrain" that leads to the arduous examination of sexuality we call queer theory is a pleasure to read. Although Turner demonstrates the conceptual slipperiness of queer theory, his own writing is clear, coherent, and energetic. Thus, although his book reads most easily if the reader has some prior knowledge of names and trends of thought, it is nonetheless accessible to those whose curiosity is greater than their knowledge is broad. Moreover, although Turner necessarily focuses his analysis on Michel Foucault's interrogation of sexuality, he also looks to feminism's insistence on gender's intersection with sexuality. This insistence on the richest and most complex recounting of the rise of queer theory suggests just how much is at stake for anyone who is concerned with identity and its relationships to power.

Central to queer theorists is the insistence that all categories of identity—woman, heterosexual, lesbian, and faggot, for example—depend on culture and history for their meanings. Nor do they have significance apart from their existence as half of a binary. Woman/man, like black/white, depends on relationships of unequal power for its meaning. But such categories themselves are neither natural nor usefully descriptive. Hence the usefulness of a category called "queer." Its broad embrace of any and all sexual identities "demonstrates the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of binary identity categories" (p. 34). After all, "What is the opposite of transgender?" asks Turner. What if a person fits more than one devalued category? Can homosexuality reflect—or does it erase—lesbianism's gendered experiences? Queer's categorical emptiness is thus welcoming, "leaving the question of its denotations open to contest and revision" (p. 35).

Foucault's exploration of sexuality without recourse to gender has been problematic for many feminist theorists, even as his insistence on sexuality as a function of power has been useful for many others. Theories of sexuality have been integral to feminism's analysis of gender for more than a quarter of a century. Recall, for example, the effect of the Smith-Rosenberg (1975) article, which insisted that the affectional love of historical women should be read apart from 20th-century understandings. Were the letters and diaries of these women, filled with articulations of intense love and tenderness for one another, evidence of lesbianism? Smith-Rosenberg dismissed the question, arguing that modern definitions of lesbian identity and behavior lacked all relevance for the 19th-century woman. Or remember the Barnard College conference sex wars of 1982, when battles over permissible sexual practices—sadomasochism, the use of pornography, sexual role playing—made painfully clear the importance of sexuality's meaning for feminist self-definition.

Turner's recapitulation of the past 25 years of feminist thought is as insightful as it is exciting, even if I have some doubts about his positioning of particular feminist theorists. Can we really read Faderman's (1978) article as theorizing sexual construction rather than essentializing lesbianism? Rubin's (1984) article was breathtaking in its refusal to grant sexuality an existence independent of power and daring in its insistence that sexuality is not the purview of feminism. But Rubin's argument that the oppression of sexual minorities takes place under the dispensation of protecting children from sexual knowledge and experience poses the very problem that made feminist theorists insist that sexuality should not be divorced from considerations of gender's power differences.

But these are quibbles, really. Turner is a careful and thorough historian who is intent on writing a highly readable narrative of the genealogy of a body of theory as queer in its twists and turns as it is in its subject matter.