Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Famous Queer Scholar Refuses Prize; Keeps Salary, Named Chair

Facebook and queer blogs have been a-buzz of late with the international doings of The Famous Queer Scholar. Recently, s/he has traveled boldly to Europe on the pretext of accepting a prize (probably on the euro of the organization giving it), only to publicly refuse the prize. In doing so, s/he made a point of chastising the organization for its failure to adequately refuse racism and "homonationalism" (or the organization's actual collaboration with the German state -- the nature of the crimes isn't quite clear from accounts of this event.) Although no one wants to explain what they did to deserve this, we are led to believe that it served the bastards right.

Goddammit, I wish I'd thought of this first. The last time I was offered a prize, I just frakking took it, thinking only of the generosity of those who were awarding it and of the microraise it might pry out of Zenith. I now just feel stupid for having not refused all prizes, but I vow to do so in the future, because you just can't do enough to fight racism, transphobia and homosexual collaboration in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is, of course, only the latest of The Famous Queer Scholar's refusals. S/he has refused hir own celebrity, becoming particularly cranky in 1992 when a Midwestern graduate student created a very funny fanzine that used hir image to mock the feminist literary turn and the rise of queer academic super-stardom. In a path-breaking book s/he refused ontological gender and identity politics. Later, she refused criticism that this key text undermined a feminist epistemological praxis or the very possibility of queer politics in a democratic society.* Protesting just such a criticism in 2008, s/he responded:

“Despite the dislocation of the subject that the text performs, there is a person here: I went to many meetings, bars, and marches and saw many kinds of genders, understood myself to be at the crossroads of some of them, and encountered sexuality at several of its cultural edges.”

So there.

Refusal has been the cutting edge of queer scholarship for some time. This can, of course, leave historians a bit in the dust, since the vast majority of us are too stupid to write without falling into the intellectual trap that there are real people who did actual things. But refusing the privilege of prizes takes the struggle to a whole new level, particularly for those of us who have little or nothing to refuse. Under these circumstances, short of voluntarily giving up our jobs, refusal is difficult to achieve, so we have to just settle back into the audience and marvel at the courage of others to travel all the way to Europe and refuse things -- in German!

As an addendum, I find it interesting that The Famous Queer Scholar, who is white, is being uniformly praised by queer scholars of color for making an inferred claim to critical interventions on race and migration that do not originate with hir. Oh yes, I know Walter Benjamin said that there is no longer an original, only reproductions of it (an idea that is uncannily similar to the notion that there is no gender, only performances of it, the intervention that made FQS a celebrity in the first place, and that I now understand s/he has repudiated on the grounds of that s/he no longer believes in the predictability of its subversiveness.)** Perhaps s/he is repudiating race too, as a necessary precondition to refusing racism. That said, I do believe that the term "homonationalism" was -- I think -- coined first by this scholar of color (in collaboration with this scholar of color) who may -- or may not -- be gnashing her teeth that she has not yet been offered anything that she can refuse -- even a little credit for her ideas from The Famous Queer Scholar.

Celebrity can be quite problematic, and I have no acquaintance with it, so I am sure there must be some explanation for why, in the name of antiracism, the FQS has nicked other people's ideas without acknowledging them. Furthermore, I suppose it is hard to refuse celebrity without, paradoxically, becoming more celebrated and hence, unwillingly (but inevitably) contributing to the inherently racist, and firmly institutionalized, academic practice of appropriating the subaltern radical (or is it the radical subaltern?) In this vein, you can go here for a great video of Angela Davis at a recent conference. Although Davis is talking at length about her own ideas concerning the transformation of movement struggle through intersectionality, the clip is billed (by whomever posted it) as "Angela Davis on Famous Queer Scholar's Refusal To Accept..." (emphasis mine.)

So you can see this famous refusal for yourself, as Warner Wolf used to say, Let's cut to the videotape!

*See? I can use big words too.
**Transpeople beware: you may soon be burdened with, and have to repudiate, the charge of transnationalism.


Comrade PhysioProf said...


Be careful, though, TR. Butler is a Professor of Rhetoric, and those rhetoricians can seriously fuck your shit up.

Tavia said...

I will fess up to being among the people circulating a quick and possibly misleading version of this story that, because I wanted to deflect the media reporting that focused solely on Butler's oblique critique of Pride's commercialism, neglected to provide the full background to her decision to refuse (which was made in Berlin, after meeting with both the organizers of Pride and their critics). As Jasbir Puar details now on Bully Bloggers, however, Butler refused the prize only after being organized into that action by on-the-ground queer of color activists in Berlin. Puar also notes the problem with a white celebrity scholar speaking for queer activists of color. I know you already link to our feed, but the post in question is

Tenured Radical said...

Oh Tavia, I always like what you write, and I think JP's post today was headed in the right direction too (although too polite by half, if you ask me.) I do often wonder if the queer scholarly establishment ever thinks it really wants to be talking to normal people -- even your average academic -- given the amount of decoding that has to go on as we read. Most folks -- even really smart ones -- don;t get it that "refuse," "interpellate" and "scandalize" reference actions that have much to do with lived political life and progressive change. But that's another topic.

My question is: has Butler just discovered Pride's commercialism & it's complete co-option by the homosexual business community and local tourism boards? I mean, she lives in San Francisco, for crying out loud. True, everyone in SF has better politics, they recycle more, and disabled people have full access -- but Pride is all about selling beer and hotel rooms there, just like it is everywhere else.

I dunno -- I've been missing the magic on her for a while. And when people fall all over this as though it is a truly activist moment, I say "Huh?"

Historiann said...

Huh. So THAT's what transnationalism is!

Hilarious. As someone who has "little or nothing to refuse," I too find FQS's performance of herself and her Bartleby-like refusals to be utterly baffling. But, I guess this is how one plays "celebrity." (You're writing about her, after all!)

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to mention what the "famous" Angela Davis (who is herself a queer, feminist woman of color) said regarding Butler's refusal.

Davis makes an excellent and less wordy point: that it is wrong to assume that LGBT groups are not racist. Rather, it is the insidiousness of forces like racism, sexism and homophbia that we need to work to address. Whatever the validity of Butler's refusal was, hopefully her actions have led to these issues being discussed in more critical ways.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Louie B: I think I linked to that - and yes, that LGBTQ groups are often racist is an important (although I think not an entirely ill-publicized) point. But the reason I raised the Angela Davis commentary is that the way the YouTube clip is labeled, Davis's ideas become subsumed under Butler's celebrity. So the phenomenon in which white scholars end up with ownership of ideas generated by scholars of color -- in the name of antiracism -- is the issue I am trying to point up here.

Anonymous said...

"making an inferred claim to critical interventions"

at first I read the third word as "infra-red."

Tenured Radical said...

Instead of responding to your comment, Lisa, I erased it. Any sins of snidery and ignorance committed in this post were returned in spades: it was really beneath your dignity.

You should also try clicking on links to get a sense of what I do, and do not, know -- although that should only make a difference to me, not you.

meg said...

Nice discussion! Thanks!