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(Reflect)ing on Cohen...th(O)ughts

Over the past several days I have tried to articulate to myself some definition or understanding of the term power as it is used in Cohen's article. As others have commented in discussion, power can begin to be described in terms of bodies existing in a space-time dynamic. Engaging with this idea I tried to formulate a connection to my tracking term the non/human. I wondered if there was something essentially problematic about reworking ideas around power and its usage by using homocentric (human centered) qualities (categories) as a reference. I sort of got lost in trying to create a cohesion that might add a comprehensiveness to my thoughts. Coming to a personal conclusion on the very necessity of homocentric discourse in these things I wonder of the importance of my jumbled thought fragments. I have been at a loss of words in this final examination and so there it is; in a blog post of reflection I cannot, even in the last available moments, reflect on my long stewing thoughts and must instead present my failure to articulate my failure. Power is messy and I've heard some good things and I would be very interested in hearing people's thoughts about power.

Day Eleven: October 14

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Here's a digital copy of the notes you'll be receiving and working with in class today. Hopefully this guide will help to keep us focused and lead to a productive and in-depth discussion. We'll be addressing some themes as a large group and likely also rearranging a bit in order to further push at our ideas of power as well as how classrooms should work.

Queering Desire Notes for 10.14.10

Power: How do you relate to power? How does it work?

To what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the eternal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person? To what extent is "identity" a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience? And how do the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity? (Butler, Gender Trouble, 23)

[M]y concern is centered on those individuals who consistently activate only one characteristic of their identity, or a single perspective of consciousness, to organize their politics, rejecting any recognition of the multiple and intersecting systems of power that largely dictate our life chances. (Cohen, 25)

And: we can begin to think critically about the components of a radical politics built not exclusively on identities but rather on identities as they are invested with varying degrees of normative power. (Cohen, 37)

How might we represent power visually?

Gender can be described as a system of meanings and symbols and the rules, privileges and punishments for their use. All the ways in which people express their bodies and communicate with the world can be gendered and encoded with meaning-- for example: vocal inflection, body hair, clothing, laughter, sexuality, and the very space one takes up in a room.

Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. (Butler, Gender Trouble, 45)

The injunction to be a given gender produces necessary failures, a variety of incoherent configurations that in their multiplicity exceed and defy the injunction by which they are generated. (Butler, Gender Trouble, 199)

How does gender make sense to you? How do we all do gender? How do we all fail gender?

Queer/ness/ing

unknowingness, opposition, liminality, questioning, problematizing, interrogating, troubling, deconstructing, failing

Utopia can never be prescriptive and is always destined to fail. Despite this seeming negativity, a generative politics can be potentially distilled from the aesthetics of queer failure ... Queer failure ... is more nearly about escape and a certain kind of virtuosity. (Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 173)

I envision a politics where one's relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one's political comrades... if any radical potential is to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin. (Cohen 22)

[Queer] as an outcome of temporality, life scheduling, and eccentric economic practices (Halberstam)

It is not enough, in other words, to take up the simultaneity of race, class, gender, and sexuality, which it is my argument that the vernacular does constantly in keywords like punk and punked. Rather, we must investigate the subject transformed by law that nevertheless exists nowhere within it, the figure of absolute abjection that is, paradoxically, part of our everyday experience. (Nyong'o, 30)

I take it as almost axiomatic that queer theory embraces, even celebrates transgression; it seeks the sublime not in resistance - that's too damn bristly and self-serious - but in the blithe and gleeful disregard for social convention. (Ford, 478)

Heteronormativity encompasses many neoliberal systems of (invisible) privilege which favor specific white, upper and middle class heterosexual bodies, lives, experiences, values, and ways of knowing, for example.

Precisely because many queers refuse and resist the heteronormative imperative of home and family, they also prolong the periods of their life devoted to subcultural participation. This challenge to the notion of the subculture as a youth formation could on the one hand expand the definition of subculture beyond its most banal significations of youth in crisis and on the other hand challenge our notion of adulthood as reproductive maturity. (Halberstam)

Homonormativity reiterates heteronormative ideals (ie. gender), mapping them onto homosexual bodies, etc.

Cohen and identity politics

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I am interested in examining how Cohen's use of identity politics as a positive outlet for personal usage may complicate her resolution of queer politics. Though not shy to speak of the shortcomings of identity politics, Cohen uses it to describe herself (lesbian). She also eludes to the potential of personal gain in communities constructed by labeled individuals. Does this in itself reinforce not only hetero vs. homo but also other identity conflicts? How does misidentification increase every persons inclusions in identity labeled communities? Regardless of my identification, especially if I do not identify, the presumptions of others label me and thus allow me to draw power from specific community networks. If I am labeled as a white heterosexual male then I become a conduit or embodiment of that community to the identifier in that moment and potentially in future reflection. Even if I have placed a boundary, such as identifying in a certain way, I cannot help but to be labeled in some or all instances as something uniquely different. If I am willing to cooperate on the basis of marginalized relation to power then I should not try to reinforce boundaries that are constantly permeated. Arguably, by resisting personal identification I can gain from every community I am misidentified as belonging with. I think of humbling individuality and exploring interconnectedness.

Cohen: margenalized relation to power

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Cathy Cohen, a political scientist and author, engages with popular notions of identity politics and its reexamined vision, as it may exist, in a new queering theory or queer politics. Citing rhetoric such as "Queers Read This," Cohen articulates the stagnation present in hetero vs. homo discourse (or other dichotomous constructions). By pointing to the shortcomings of dissecting factors of oppression in a way that sexuality and sexual deviancy exist independent of race, class, and sex, she sets a framework of commonality that is necessitated in a revision of queer politics. It is through blurring of these factors that the argument of hetero vs. homo succumbs to the conclusion that categorization under either of these labels does not prescribe a defined relationship to power structures. Moreover, it can be found that within or between any political label exists a ground of "shared marginal relationships to dominant power." That is to say, for example, a gay and a straight identified person may be financially unstable and their bodies share a marginalized relation to power. Through the examination of this power dynamic Cohen asserts the need for collective politics based on material relation to power and not presumed relation based on political identity. By embracing the fluidity of our persons we stand to blur identity politics in a way such that it works against the dominant power structure. It is through this that the divisions that place bodies in hierarchies, even within oppressed categories of identity, crumble and a queer politics is reborn.

Diablog #1: What is Queer/ness?

power and priv - lege
identity politics
not so neat and clean

- a re(dis)covered haiku, that didn't make it on the blog, from Queering Theory Fall 2009

[...] if any radical potential is to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin.

- Cohen 22

black queer studies.jpg

In "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?," from the pictured 2005 anthology and also (an earlier version?) a 1997 issue of GLQ, Cohen describes the impetus of a (growing?) coalitional queer activism which unites based on marginalization by systems of power and opposition to dominant norms (whiteness, heteronormativity, genderism, classism) rather than organizing around any particular "homogenizing" identity in one of many hierarchical categories which function to create "others" (22-23), Much of Cohen's argument relies on a conception of power as multifaceted, involving both repressive and discursive (or productive) functions (Foucault, see primarily Discipline and Punish). From her essay, we can see the imperative to think critically about complex relations to power and develop, in Cohen's words, "an understanding of the ways our multiple identities work to limit the entitlement and status that some receive from obeying a heterosexual imperative" (or appearing to obey a heterosexual imperative) (26). In short, there is not such a stark nor parallel divide between queer/hetero and marginalized/powerful as some theory and activism (or politics) may suggest (31-32). Different rearrangements are possible, perhaps even favorable...

This is clear as queer/ness for Cohen becomes a broad umbrella term not based on perceived "deviant" sexuality and/or gender, but rather a whole sea of those who experience institutionalized oppression on the bases of (perceived or self-identified in all cases) race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and/or expression, class, (dis)ability, or any other identity marker visible or otherwise (including my additions to Cohen's formulation). Cohen urges the consideration of "the ways in which identities of race, class, and/or gender either enhance or mute the marginalization of queers, on the the one hand, and the power of heterosexuals, on the other" (32). Queerness is equal, then, to distance from the norm-- but that queer distance could be thought of as a (non-hierarchical?) gradient going in many directions. Cohen describes these subject positions as "identities as they are invested with varying degrees of normative power" (37). Again, we must think about how power works in a particular space, at a particular time, in a specific relationship between many multiple colliding identities and systems. How do you understand relations to/of power? How do time and location, variables of moving bodies, change how we think about power?

The coalitional or transformational politics imagined by Cohen encompass a group which shares "a commitment to a fundamental transformation of the economic, political and social structures of society," which she then contrasts with incorporation/assimilation politics (27). If the former defines itself by transformation, then a critical look at the latter suggests that it expands the group(s) of privileged citizens (privileged members of marginal groups) while even further marginalizing other stigmatized identities/practices/groups. The transformational agenda instead works to "change values, definitions, and laws that make those institutions and relationships oppressive" (29). While this separation itself may not be so neat and clean, it does provide us with ways to think through how we theorize AND organize under the name or act of queer/ness. Queers per se are not the only bodies perceived as outside of what would be called normal, deserving, moral, etc. It is with this in mind that we can approach queering politics not by demanding equality to dominant norms (the rights of white, heteronormative, masculine, male, middle-to-upper-class citizens) but by looking to change the actual terms of engagement with such processes of power.

Cohen: a dialogue in parts

Cathy Cohen argues in her essay, "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens," for the rejection of identity-based political alliances in favor of more relevant, more radical, political solidarity:

We must reject a queer politics that seems to ignore in its analysis of the usefulness of traditionally named categories the roles of identity and community as paths to survival, using shared experiences of oppression and resistance to build indigenous resources, shape consciousness, and act collectively. (45)
For Cohen, queer politics concerns not one's sexual identity, per se (though perceived sexual deviance is certainly a common denominator), but one's relation to power (22) and numerous regulatory systems of oppression serving to govern and modify queerness (25). The urgency for disidentification, then, in Cohen's piece emerges from the widespread tendency of identity-based political groups (read: gay and lesbian politics) to frame their agenda unilaterally and create false dichotomies: queer v. straight; homo v. hetero; black v. white; et cetera. The failure to recognize and actively intermesh these various points of oppression into a cohesively conjoined queer political analysis allows for a hierarchical treatment of queer bodies, lending precedence to whiteness and homosexually assembled queerness:


Using the framework of queer theory in which heteronormativity is identified as a system of regulation and normalization, some queer activists map the power and entitlement of normative heterosexuality onto the bodies of all heterosexuals. Further, these activists naively characterize as powerless all of those who exist under the category of "queer." (31)

Cohen sites the manifesto "I Hate Straights," written and distributed anonymously at pride events, to showcase the idle hostility at play in tastelessly fabricated political divisions. Such oversight in attesting to regulatory, exclusionary structures of oppression which similarly effect nonnormative bodies and familial arrangements perceived to be heterosexual as they do other queer bodies and arrangements merely serves to further formulate divisive political barriers between oppressed groups of people in lieu of active collectives.

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