Direct Engagement- Sullivan


I chose to do a direct engagement with the Sullivan reading. I enjoyed this reading because when a buzzword like "poststructuralism" or "humanism" was used, it was defined and articulated how it was being used. I chose some words/ concepts/ questions to trace throughout the article and what affect these have on the idea of queer theory.

Poststructuralism is defined as "a rejection, or at least critique" of humanist ideas and aspirations (39). Poststructuralism questions commonly accepted ideas of humanism like power, freedom, truth, etc. Poststructuralist theorists argue that the search for truth is futile because there is no truth, but rather commonly accepted "bodies of knowledge" that are produced rather than innate. Similarly, there is not inner self to be found, the subject is produced through discourses and normalization processes (39). Following these premises, the goal for poststructuralists is to understand how dominant ways of thinking have been reproduced and reveal the contingency of their dominance. They also focus on local power relationships and reject universalistic accounts (40).
Poststructuralism creates many challenges for queer theory. It creates a challenge to identity politics that tends to universalize experiences based on an identity marker. Poststructuralism would question how local power acted on bodies differently. GLBT activism has also focused on revealing the "true self" through processes of outing, etc. Poststructuralists would find this inherently problematic because there is no true self before conditioning and normalizing processes. The search for the true self also distracts from attention to those processes of normalization (41).
Instead, queer theory should focus on how local power operates to create normalizing tendencies and how they can be resisted at the local level.

Sullivan defines the humanist subject as having a distinct mind and body. It follows that "identity is located in the consciousness and that the body is simply a material receptacle that houses the mind or the spirit" (41). Humanists argue that "ideology" has colonised the true self and the goal of politics should be to free the self (41). Humanism views power as a tool of the elite who force ideology on individuals.
Humanists believe that activism needs to be focused on ridding the mind of the power of elites in order to liberate the true self. The ideology imposed on souls is something that can be gotten rid of.

Sullivan discusses debates around power primarily as a debate between humanists and poststructuralists. Humanists view power as coming from the top down. Elites impose their power through ideology on individuals. Poststructuralists view power as flowing through society. Both elites and individuals can possess it. Humanists are more universalizing in their view of power whereas poststructuralists tend to look at power as more localized.
This affects queer theory in terms of resistance. Humanists would argue that resistance to power would lead to the ultimate liberation. The true self can be revealed once ideology is revealed. Poststructuralists, like Foucault, argue that power is central to resistance. Individuals have power and localized power can be used to resist and expose power/knowledges. This resistance will not look the same everywhere and depends upon the location and power structures there (42-3).

So, What is Queer?
Sulivan explores several options for how to explain or define the term "queer." A lot of theorists she examines, who appear towards poststructuralism prefer to keep the term undefined. Queer is something that is constantly negotiated and exists in opposition to norms. David Halperin describes queer as a positionality because it does not describe the humanist sense of the soul or identity (44). Cathy Cohen also describes how straight people who are leading non-normative lives (the welfare queen) can be viewed as queer because of their non-normative positionality (49).
Often queer falls short of its radical potential. Sullivan describes activist groups who find that queer is still male centered and utilizes white privilege. Queer can also fall into dichotomous ways of thinking that endanger coalitional strategies (48).
There is also the question of what the goal of "queer" is. As Halperin would seem to suggest, queer is merely an oppositional force that is in fact defined by its opposition to the norm. But queer has also been used in assimilationist struggles to justify "homonormative" ends as discussed in class.

So, what are we to take from this? First, I think this piece gives a nice primer on the common buzzwords and philosophical turns and debates. I think it's also important to connect these philosophies to "queer" and how they differ in their aim.
The author's example of But I'm A Cheerleader reveals the author's point of view. Her process of "queering heteronormativity" utilizes a poststructuralist critique of the movie and the process the main character undergoes.
I think humanism and poststructuralism are both concepts that we have engaged with and will continue to engage with throughout the class. Both of these concepts are utilized in queer/ GLBT activism today and this article can help us to think critically about the assumptions these strategies rely on.


When reading your direct engagement i liked how you broke down several of the issues in which Sullivan was addressing. You found quite a bit of back-up evidence from the article which i really liked. There is a good balance between what you think and what she thinks. In the beginning of your DE you talk about poststructuralism. I like how you first distinguish between the poststructuralist view and the humanistic view. I like the way that you addressed the issue of identity politics through mentioning the differences in between poststructuralism and Humanism. This idea of universality and locality really brings these two issues into context for me. It's almost like the group verses the individual except the individual is the local and the group is the universal. I also think you did a great job of bringing in the issue of power because power is one of the bigger issues at hand here. The idea of where power comes from comes to mind and the ways in which poststructuralist's and humanists view power are very different. Also, the idea of resistance brings about the differences between these two types of thinking. As you mention above, "Humanists would argue that resistance to power would lead to the ultimate liberation",and "Poststructuralists like Foucault, argue that power is central to resistance. Individuals have power and localized power can be used to resist and expose power/knowledges. This resistance will not look the same everywhere and depends upon the location and power structures there"
I love these two quotes that you picked out. They really explain the differences between the two.

Great job on this direct engagement. You provide a lot of helpful information in a way that's easy to read.

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