Social Science Roots of Queer Theory
Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory, by Heather Love, The University of Chicago Press, 2021, 224 pp., USD 26, ISBN 9780226761107
“Sometimes we have to let ghosts be ghosts” (387), Heather Love argues in her essay “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” which questions the working of humanist empathy in literary studies.Enlightened by Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman, two sociologists interested in literature, she proposes an interdisciplinary reading method that combines literary texts and sociological research to highlight the significance of description. Based on flat description rather than rich interpretation, her mode of reading, close but not deep, has as its goal to present the ghost, something irrecuperable in the archive, in a history of violence.
The descriptive turn continues in her newly published book, Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory. Influenced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s emphasis on affect and embodiment, Love explores the connection between the social science of deviance and the queer theory. According to Love, unlike Judith Butler who focuses on the discourse, Sedgwick pays more attention to reality, thus highlighting the importance of empirical research in the development of queer theories (4). In fact, except for the status of sex, the midcentury social science of deviance shares many similarities with queer theory: the concern for stigmas and stigmatized groups, the advocacy for the nonidentitarian politics, and the awareness of inequality in everyday lives (14). On the other hand, she demonstrates that deviance studies was shaped by “nationalism, parochialism, and its assumption of a White, middle-class standard of behavior” in the Cold War (14-15). So, as she points out, not only do these limitations survive in queer theory, they drive contemporary queer theorists to dismiss or deny the social science roots of queer theory. In this sense, tracing this troubling history is to address whiteness, classism, and nationalism embedded in the queer theory, while advancing its strength as the collective emancipation for underdogs. For this purpose, an underdog method, as she defines it, refers to the observational research approach practiced on stigmatized individuals on the microscopic scale (19). Although observation can hardly liberate underdogs who are expected to lose due to systemic oppression, this method identifies with the underworld where underdogs struggle to survive.
Arguing for the social science roots of the queer theory, Underdogs is devoted to close reading of foundational theoretical and literary texts that are crucial to queer studies but not fully endorsed by queer critics. In Chapter 1, “The Stigma Archive,” Love considers Erving Goffman’s book Stigma, which defines stigma as a debasing attribute, one of the essential source texts for contemporary queer studies. For Love, Goffman’s attention to performance in everyday life (41), the failure of which can endanger the stability of social structures, and commonalities among social underdogs (43), which reveals an attempt to transcend the identitarian politics, influences some important queer thought, including Butler’s “gender performativity” and Sedgwick’s “epistemology of the closet.” In “Just Watching,” the second chapter, she focuses on the intersection between biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen’s study of animal behavior in animal ethology and sociologist Laud Humphreys’s observational methods in sexuality studies. Specifically, in Early Childhood Autism, Tinbergen applies a naturalistic observational method to children with autism to resist “the dominance of experimental psychology” (96), universalizing autism as a matter of environmental stress. Humphreys, in Tearoom Trade, deploys naturalistic microsociology to observe men engaging in sexual encounters in public restrooms, presenting them as “mere players” in the game of anonymous sex to void the psychological account of deviance (108). These two works are relevant for Love, because of their applications of naturalistic observation to visible human behaviors. In the third chapter, “A Sociological Periplum,” she discusses historian Joan Scott’s reading of queer author Samuel Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light in Water in her essay, “The Evidence of Experience.” In the memoir, Delany narrates that when he entered the New St. Marks Baths for the first time in the pre-Stonewall era, the sight of nude male bodies exhibited “a world of queer male intimacy” (117), which shattered the myth that homosexuals are isolated perverts. Inspired by Scott’s observation that Delany’s “radical empiricism” shows “the ambiguity and complexity of sensory experience” (119), she argues that Delany’s documentation of hidden worlds of public sex can broaden the purview of queer studies limited by poststructuralist insights (134). In the final chapter, “Doing Being Deviant,” she continues her historicization of queer studies, arguing that the antagonistic attitude of early queer theorists towards the social science of deviance disregards the contributions of empirical methods of making “space for new forms of practice and embodiment” (160).
In general, Love attempts to discover, if not make, an alternative history of queer studies—the study and theorization of nonidentitarian politics against social norms—by exploring its social science roots. Clearly, this is an ambitious project, considering the rivalry between the social sciences and humanities. Can we talk about queer theory without resorting to Michel Foucault’s sexual discourse or Butler’s gender performativity? What is the value of empirical method of observation for queer studies, a literary field characterized by a poststructuralist framework? Responding to these questions, her close reading of different genres of texts written by sociologists, biologists, and historians reveals inextricable links between the queer theory and social sciences, some of which are ignored or denied by queer theorists. For example, according to Love, Butler underestimates the association between the linguistically constituted self in her Gender Trouble and the context-based social self in Goffman’s work: For Butler, social science research on doing gender assumes and strengthens the illusion of a stable prediscursive structure for the subject and acts, which is rejected by the linguistic constitution of the self in her work (66). Nonetheless, Love states that this differentiation is established on Butler’s misunderstanding of Goffman’s social self. To be specific, Goffman’s self, as “an effect of patterned social relations” (68), is relational and anti-foundational. The first-person narration in Delany’s memoir also exemplifies queer theory’s inheritance from the social sciences. As Love underscores, in the memoir, Delany, one of the most remarkable contributors to the introduction of queer theory, manifests his engagement with the socioeconomic system and empirical approaches of documentation. For her, although observational research is accused by queer studies of objectifying and stabilizing homosexuality, Delany’s radical empiricism integrating personal experience with systematic analysis puts underdogs in a prominent position unremorseful, thus revaluing otherness (122). In this way, she demonstrates Delany’s memoir’s unforeseeable value of observation and description, which is ignored by queer scholarship that exclusively concentrates on defiant representations in radical art and literature. Her reading presents a realist form of queer politics that aims at opening up queer worlds, instead of transforming extant queer lives.
Underdogs is undoubtedly a book of transgression, and transgression is the essence of queer theory’s anti-institutionalization promise. This book transgresses multiple boundaries: boundaries between the humanities and the social sciences, between animal behaviors and human activities, between the literary and the empirical, between the political and the apolitical, and between queer feeling and ordinary experience. Almost all transgressions involve various ethical issues. In every chapter, Love begins with her illustration of boundary-crossing practices of main texts; then, she introduces ethical problems caused by a neutral observational method; responding to ethical controversaries, she teases out unnoticeable positive effects the transgression. This consistent mode risks to make her analyses repetitive and predictable to some readers, whereas her writing process clearly articulates loss and gain of each transgression. For instance, should queer theory shaped by progressive political activism borrow the description of nonverbal communication from Tinbergen’s human ethology, the reputation of which has been corrupted by its suspicious relation to notorious sociobiology? After all, Tinbergen’s research method that relies on human-animal comparison is ethically controversial. Some scholars resist the comparison between humans and animals, as it fails to recognize the dignity of human beings. But Love demonstrates, with the rise of environmental humanities, this anthropocentric critique is associated with “the deployment of the category of the human to do violence to the planet and its inhabitants” (89). She argues that Tinbergen’s human-animal comparison is to extend the noninterventionist observational methods for the inquiry of objective knowledge, rather than to investigate the so-called human nature associated with Nazi sociobiology. Similarly, Humphreys’ naturalistic method of observing anonymous sexual encounters has been criticized for dehumanizing human beings and violating ethical standards. He gathers his subjects’ biographical data, while concealing his identity of researcher. For this problem, Love emphasizes that Humphrey’s pure observation can be viewed as a destigmatizing refusal of speculation about psychological experience and deeper motivation that pathologize homosexuality (108).
As a continuation of her exploration of descriptive turn, Love’s Underdogs suggests that although description and observation are inevitably implicated in objectification, objectification also cultivates self-reflexivity that produces critical histories of queer theory’s participation in the violence of knowledge production. In addition to her stress on observation, some of her main points, including queerness of everyday life and backwardness of disqualified identities can easily remind readers of her first book, Feeling Backward. However, grouping previous arguments into the new category, “social science roots of queer theory,” might shed new perspectives on her old ideas. This provocative book will benefit readers who are interested in the descriptive turn in literary studies, the alternative history of queer studies, as well as the interaction between the humanities and the social sciences.
Indiana University Bloomington
Love, Heather. “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 371-391.
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