What is Queer Theory?

Hello dear readers!

I have had a few questions recently about some of the terms that we use here often at Looking For Pemberley. Although many of the terms that I use range from academic to very informal, made-up words, there area  few that I think you should know about when you are reading posts here. I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

So, I’ve decided that I will start a “definitions” post series, so you can familiarize yourself with some potentially unfamiliar terms.

In the future, look under the “defined” category to find the posts in this vein.


Let’s start with the term Queer Theory, as I have had a few questions about that.

For many people who grew up when the word “queer” was pejorative, this term may seem a little alarming. Really, queer is not a bad word.

Queer theory came out of gender studies, which derived from feminism, and is used as a lens or framework to view different media or texts, such as works of art or books, for example.

It is a type of theory that challenges binary constructions like “male” and ‘female,” but is not at all limited to gender. One of the reasons many people may be confused about what queer theory actually is, is because it has so many applications. Scholars and others often use the ideas from “queer theorists” such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam and Chandan Reddy (as mentioned previously here) to understand and question any given text, ideology, simplistic construction, or social situation.

Queer theory can be a very freeing tool, and remains politically important, because it also allows for personal identity to fluctuate, and resists definition of who we are as people, what makes us the way we are, and what we can or should prescribe to.

I myself am very interested in queer theory and studied it in school, so if you have questions about it, feel free to continue asking!

Also, if you have anything to add, please pitch in through the comment section or e-mail me from the “about” page! I would love to hear your personal definitions.

I also have some resources that I think will help you understand the purpose and goals of Queer Theory listed below that might help.

Queer Theory

Theory Org

Queer by Choice link database


Have a great weekend!

Miss E

Judith and Jack and Chandan

Hi all!

The other night, I went to an informal presentation by wonderful team Jack and Judith Halberstam and Chandan Reddy at Elliot Bay Bookstore promoting their new books.

It was a wonderful reminder of why it’s awesome to live in Seattle 🙂 In my graduate work, I often studied Halberstam, and greatly admire her scholarship. I could not believe that two amazing and pretty famous queer theory scholars would be offering a talk in a bookstore basement easily accessible to me. This was during the MLA Convention, so many scholars were in town. Still, I was very impressed with their choice of location, especially since I did not pay 60 dollars for registration to attend closed panels at the convention.

So, I excitedly hailed a cab to Capital Hill and arrived just in time for the presentation to begin.  I was planning on meeting Judith, but when I arrived, I was introduced to Jack. Apparently, Halberstam is only Judith in writing. Jack’s presentation was really fun, and I found his style incredibly engaging. Chandan was very verbose, but also very pedantic and somewhat jargony.  I think that non-academics had a hard time understanding some of his points, but I also think that he worked hard during and after his presentation to make his information more accessible to the public.

Together, this team of scholars was pretty formidable, and I felt lucky that I got to see them in action.

Here are the pictures from that night:

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I promised a friend that I would copy notes for him, and I decided to copy some for you all as well.

I found myself scribbling excessively for both presentations, but more so for Chandan’s half. He went second, and he made many complicated points about modernity, but interlaced with discussion of a complex racial history. Writing down key points during the presentation was really helpful for me, and I think I got the gist of what he was arguing.

Like Halberstam said at the beginning of their presentation, Reddy’s arguments are complex, but they also reflect the intense complexity of the issues he is working with, some of which would be done a disservice by being condensed. They obviously have a lot of love for one another’s work, and their long-standing friendship began when Halberstam was Reddy’s professor during his first year of teaching. How awesome is that?!

Halberstam’s key points/ highlights:

1. “Failure is something all people do, but perhaps is something only queer people can really turn into a lifestyle.” Jack related this to a capitalist model, arguing that in our society, and in the capitalist model, there must be “winners” and “losers.” There is no way to opt out of capitalism without becoming a “loser” when to succeed in our system, one must have money and conform to both a capitalist and heteronormative timeline for success.

2. Jack also said that “if that’s success, then I choose failure.” I found that to be a very powerful statement.

3. Halberstam also argued that Pixar movies have been “feeding children communist fables” of anti-corporate sentiments in movies such as Monsters Inc., Robots, and Over the Hedge, which she believes has helped the young generation feel so strongly about the Occupy movement and anti-capitalist reform.

4. She also gave 3 lessons in how to “fail,” or to embrace failure, which included: 1.) Learn to lose, 2.) Be a Lesbian (she gave a lot of examples of how Lesbians are still not represented as “winners” in western media, especially “The Butch,” since straight men do not desire her and straight women don’t want to emulate her). Thus, Lesbians are the greatest losers, because they are still unable to be defined by the heteronormative capitalist model. 3.) Embrace a certain type of negativity, and find other options besides winning and losing.

Reddy’s Key Points/ Highlights: 

1. Introduction of his book Queer of Color Critique of Capitalism, and the goal of exploring what a queer reading and queer person of color perspective can bring/do to capitalism.

2. Capitalism = racial capitalism in the US, which = racialized state because of colonial history, which has always been racialized.

3. Discussion of Neo-liberalism. He says that we often think of freedom as the antithesis of violence, so when the state is pointed out as the source of violence, we need to reconcile that lie, or in his words “at the moment in which “freedom” becomes the vehicle of violence.

4. Pointed out the “3 regimes of modern freedom,” which includes his notion of “negative liberties,” or when freedom from violence was untenable; it rather was a freedom through revolutionary violence. He argues against the national rhetoric of the state that purports the idea of attaining freedoms from violence and all peoples becoming equal once that illusive freedom is attained. He pointed out that this approach and this myth hasn’t worked, and has never been attained, using that as a touchstone for the necessity of rethinking our subject positions and the idea of freedom within a violent state.

5. He used a great image example of a “missing billboard” installation art to illustrate the people who are left out of the picture the state paints in the capitalist model. He says that by intentially leaving out or disqualifying other possibilities of being, the modern capitalist state attempts to sustain [and advertise?] very specific system of experience. According to Reddy, we need to look at the latticework, or the frame, the people on the outskirts of what is being represented to us, for models of being.

6. He also argued that we are all being asked by the state, through citizenship agreements, to lose a little bit of our personal identities, and also to re-imagine our complicity with “freedom” and all that it costs. In essence, our complicity is really asking us to reconsider that subject position in the state with it’s history of violence (most likely through ignoring or attempting to “forget” that history of violence). Because we are taught that to identify ourselves and attain “embodiment” through the state, or to be “recognized” by the sate in order to have rights, we sacrifice for those rights.

7. Thus, he argued that “we need not ask for representation, but should try living on the fringe, in disorganization.” Too often, according to Reddy, Gays and Lesbians, etc. “make the cut” with this knowledge once they find safety or representation via citizenship, and THAT NEEDS TO STOP, since only in the fringe can true revolution and self-actualization without participation in state violence really occur.

8. I have 3 more pages of notes from this talk, more than I feel is appropriate to share through blog post, but if you want to know more, just let me know 🙂

I found both presentations compelling, and am very glad that I live in Seattle and was able to experience this discussion. I found Chandan’s argument especially intricate, but very very interesting. Both Reddy and Halberstam really argued strongly for resisting capitalist heteronormativity, for different but valid reasons. In other words, it rocked my socks off!

Excitedly yours,

Miss E