Sunday, November 14, 2004

Exit Queer Theory

Some years ago Larry Kramer, the noted AIDS activist, proposed to give a large sum of money to his alma mater, Yale University, to foster the study of male homosexuality. Even though there are now thousands of women’s studies programs throughout the land, the authorities at Yale chose to reject the proposal as “sexist.” After some negotiation, an understanding was achieved. Thanks to the generosity of Kramer’s brother, a new arrangement was made, yielding the Larry Kramer Institute (LKI), which exists on the New Haven campus today.

However, the institute was vulnerable to takeover by Queer Theorists (QT), who, in Kramer’s judgment, substituted their exercises in arcane postmodern jargon for genuine scholarship. As a young man Kramer had suffered from confusion and self-doubt stemming from his sexual orientation. For this reason he held that the LKI should help other young people, who as Yale undergraduates make up a considerable portion of the group served. Yet the pretentious jargon of QT was shutting out everyone except those already committed to this academic fad.

This emphasis has not gone down well, as the QT fad is indeed declining. Moreover, it is not suffering this fate in solitude, as parasitic on postmodernism and deconstruction in general.

As QT fades it is reasonable to ask what other models are available for research in gay studies. During the 1980s, the late Warren Johansson and I proposed a classic solution: use the traditional critical tools of scholarship, which have been flourishing since they were introduced in the Renaissance by such figures as Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus. As with so many other realms of inquirty, these tools can illuminate many still poorly understood aspects of same-sex experience. Worldwide, this experience is much more varied that a present-minded focus on current North American styles and interests would suggest.

Johansson and I pointed out that there is a vast existing deposit of this work in German gay scholarship stemming from the 19th and early 20th century. To this day, most of this material remains unexploited. For example, in 1911 a German scientist, Ferdinand Karsch-Haack published a wonderful tome on same-sex behavior among tribal peoples. Except for the tireless Stephen O. Murray no recent scholar has made use of this treasure trove.

Accessing this body of information takes work—far more that the six weeks or so that it takes to acquire a veneer of the postmodern patter language, with its talk about transgression, indeterminacy, semiotic slippage and so forth. Seriously pursued, though, the older method achieves solid results. A magnificent example of this is Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press, 2003). Unlike the “breakthrough” works of QT, Crompton’s monograph will be consulted for decades to come.

Another available model stems from the social sciences. For some years a body of research reports has been accumulating from sociologists and psychologists regarding attitudes and behavior. However, most of the subjects are college students, who may alter their attitudes and behavior in later life. Those conducting these studies have not always shielded them from their own political preferences, casting doubt on the reliability of the result as a whole. For this and other reasons, the social sciences are losing traction in academia today.

There are alternatives to QT. Which one will take the lead it hard to say. Yet maybe we are not going to go “back to the future.” That is, a new model may emerge from contemporary reality, that is, the proliferation of sites on the Internet. As scholars roam the net from the privacy of their homes and offices, even prestigious research libraries note huge drops in attendance. Researchers are more and more resorting to the ‘net. To be sure, there are problems of reliability and completeness (both often compromised) in these venues. Awareness of these limitations, though, allows one to compensate for them. This development is ongoing, though, and it may yet yield important fruits.

What does seem certain is the continued decline of postmodernism, and its perverted child, Queer Theory. Those seem now to rank among the aberrations of the 20th century. Merely to mention these fads in the light of socialism, Communism, and Nazism, shows that they are not consequential aberrations, but they are mistakes all the same.