Books · Gender · GSRM/LGBTQIA · Whiteness & racism

Strange Encounter

The Lesbian PostmodernThe Lesbian Postmodern by Laura Doan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The winged lesbian on the cover of this book gazes anxiously at the hand with which she finishes drawing her second, presently missing trouser leg, while in the other hand she holds aloft a fragrant bottle of essence. This image got funnier as I understood more and more about it, which was a relief as for the first two essays I wasn’t sure I could understand anything else. It got easier, but (disclaimer!) this review is bound to be full of gross oversimplifications.

Doan’s preface to the collection tantalisingly promises that it will unsettle rather than settle questions arising from the confluence of the lesbian and the postmodern, two fraught terms with no immediately obvious relationship. Judith Roof begins her essay by resisting the conjunction, but after tracing their parallel histories finally finds readings of both that set them up for a potentially fruitful collaboration. Other essays are more direct in their intention to utilise, to put to work some relation to the postmodern for something, for the benefit of the lesbian (community)? I feel postmodern divestment from epistemic foundations holds out the possibility of testing the effects of thinking words and structures differently. We are at sea and it is up to us to work the winds

Sometimes this relation is negative. Emma Perez is perhaps the strongest voice critiquing postmodern approaches to categories of identity and subjectivities. Perez shares (in an essay I loved) that claiming her subjectivity as a Chicana lesbian is a practice of strategic essentialism (needed for survival). Robin Wiegman and Sagri Dhairyam expose postmodernism’s repositioning of power as ever more concentrated in academia, which remains white and male, and critique the complicity of the (postmodern) intellectual in the commodification of categories of identity. Erica Rand points out that ‘postmodern’ readings are often esoteric, and have limited use. But these authors are not calling for divestment from postmodern ideas and attitudes, but for critical and pragmatic engagement.

Wiegman offers, the suggestion that it is postmodern thinking that helps feminism to recognise that categories of gender race and class are inadequate to define and critique all relations of domination; Dhairyam notes that lesbian/queer as subject position/identity is only reached via the sanctions of race and class privilege.

My favourite was Elizabeth Grosz’s beautiful, inspiring contribution ‘Refiguring Lesbian Desire’, which critiques the Platonic concept of desire as a lack of something, which leads to the complementarity model of heterosexual relationships. Grosz shows that desire-as-lack means that desire is annihilated by satisfaction, so its only appropriate (or sustainable) object is another desire. She proposes a Spinozist/Deleuze & Guattarian idea of desire as productive, creative, making something, making connections. In so doing she moves away from psychoanalysis, from ‘latencies and depth’ and to ‘intensities and surfaces’ ‘energies, exitations, impulses, actions, movements, practices, moments, pulses of feeling’. This is great! Postmodernism’s suggestions of relational and dynamic… transformations? directly offer something to the erotic (not only sexual) This refiguration would have an interesting meeting with Audre Lorde I think.

Colleen Lamos asks who is reading the lesbian porn publication
On Our Backs
and finds that apparently everyone is. She suggests that this represents something like the mainstream becoming lesbian as well as the lesbian becoming mainstream. One of the themes I feel in the collection is that as soon as a step beyond the constraining frame of heterosexuality is taken, gender, romantic and sexual diversity flows in myriad directions. This is perhaps the effect of restless subjectivities seeking languages, styles, modes of being and becoming not overdetermined by the hetero/cisgender-normative, but it also, I think, exposes the artificiality of those norms.

J Halberstam (writing from a trans perspective) goes so far as to suggest that ‘we are all transsexuals’: all gender is a fiction, and one that seems to need readers. This essay seemed in danger of erasing trans people to me, but on the contrary I think, it was seeking to centre the experiences of trans men in particular. The proximity of butch lesbian women and trans hetero men reads uncomfortably through my awareness feminism’s shoddy record on trans rights, and the all too common conflation of sexual orientation with gender (although it surely harmonises in some ways with Julia Serano’s discussion of oppositional sexism in
Whipping Girl
). Halberstam’s suggestion that gender confirmation surgery be reclassified as cosmetic rather than medical rings urgent alarm bells, but is an attempt to undo the pathologisation of trans people rather than to trivialise their needs. Perhaps the head-in-the-sand syndrome of the privileged postmodern intellectual, critiqued elsewhere in relation to race, is at work here.

Laura Doan’s own contribution is a wonderful essay on the delights of Jeanette Winterson and the risky but potentially transformative work of ‘sexing the postmodern’ which lesbian feminists must undertake, in Doan’s view, to bring liberatory possibilities to life from the collapse of Enlightenment foundationalism.

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