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Queer Theory - Origins Of Queer Theory

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Perhaps the most prominent—certainly the most respectable-sounding—use of queer can be seen in its frequent coupling with theory. Teresa de Lauretis, an academic and critical theorist, has been credited with coining the phrase queer theory. In 1991 she edited a special issue of the feminist cultural studies journal differences entitled "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities." In explaining her use of the term, de Lauretis indicates that she means it to indicate at least three interrelated critical projects: a refusal of heterosexuality as the benchmark for all sexual formations; an attentiveness to gender capable of interrogating the frequent assumption that lesbian and gay studies is a single, homogeneous object; and an insistence on the multiple ways in which race crucially shapes sexual subjectivities. De Lauretis suggests that the threefold critique she imagines might be drawn together under the rubric of queer theory makes it possible "to recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual" (de Lauretis, p. iv).

It is important to remember the speculative framing of de Lauretis's coining of the term, since the rapid institutionalization of queer theory has tended to conceal the fact that—insofar as it espouses no systematic set of principles, has no foundational logic or consistent character—queer theory is not really a theory at all. While it might seem paradoxical in a dictionary entry to insist on this resistance to definition, queer theory's refusal to specify itself has been widely recognized as one of its tactical strengths. Resisting defining itself in relation to any specific material content, queer theory might be thought of less as a thing than a definitional field or network, "a zone of possibilities in which the embodiment of the subject might be experienced otherwise" (Edelman, p. 114). Since queer's opposition to the normative is its one consistent characteristic, it has the potential to invent itself endlessly, reformulating whatever knowledges currently constitute prescribed understandings of sexuality.

It is not possible to trace a chronological history of queer theory without doing violence to its multiple origins and influences. Single, linearly organized narratives have difficulty capturing a sense of the sometimes inchoate energies of the various orders of political and scholarly work that made the rise of queer theory possible, necessary, perhaps even inevitable. The risk of telling the story of queer theory as if it were the latest critical turn in sexuality studies is that vital contributing forces to queer theory are written off as superceded, anachronistic, or irrelevant. It remains important to narrate the emergence of queer theory in terms of various critical and cultural contexts, including feminism, radical movements of color, the lesbian and gay movements, various sexual subcultural practices such as sadomasochism and butch-femme stylings, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, and AIDS activism.

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