Dennis Altman Replies

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This is a response to Dennis Altman’s article On Global Queering.

Someone reading David Halperin’s response to my piece in AHR might assume I had spent a great deal of the article attacking him. In fact I mentioned him twice, in neither case explicity or implicitly suggesting that I was anything but delighted that he now holds a position in an Australian University. (I had rung David, as I assume he remembers, to congratulate him when the appointment was made.)

To my two references: I apologise if the title Saint Foucault was intended to be ironic. All I can say is that when David spoke of his book at La Trobe last year he left many of us with the impression that it was not. I have discussed my reading of David’s book elsewhere (Arena Oct/Nov. 1995) and those who are interested can compare my reading with theirs. If this leads to more people reading Saint Foucault I shall be very pleased.

I did say in my piece that: “Even as carefully produced a book as the massive Lesbian & Gay Studies Reader managed to find no room in its 666 pages for a discussion of the gay/lesbian movement nor of politics understood in the mainstream sense of institutions, elections, organisations and lobbying.” I was not arguing that the pieces by Rubin, Hall or Rich were not political–of course they are. My concern was that the movement which made lesbian and gay studies possible is largely invisible in that book–where are the references to its institutions, to openly gay/lesbian politicians such as Harvey Milk and Carole Migden (or Svend Robinson and Paul O’Grady), to the creation of community centres and political fund-raising? These may not be the most exciting of activities to academics, but they deserve recognition and analysis.

Thus it is irrelevant whether the individuals of whom David writes are activists or not: I was discussing their writings, not their claims to moral citizenship. As Lisa Duggan wrote in her discussion of ‘queer’: “There is a tendency among some queer theorists to engage in academic debates at a high level of intellectual sophistication, while erasing the political and activist roots of their theoretical insights and concerns. Such theorists cite, modify or dispute Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, while feminist, lesbian, and gay innovations and political figures disappear from sight.” 1

My major criticism of current American queer discourse was its disinterest in the rest of the world. It is exemplified by David’s remark about “current work in lesbian/gay studies” which is illustrated by nine names–all American. My case rests.

I suspect I agree in large part with Fran Martin, and I would ask her to read my forthcoming piece in Social Text where I ruminate about some of the same issues which concern her. I am interested that she believes I express “a certain nativist nostalgia for the ‘vanishing primitive'”; usually I am criticised for my willingness to discount cultural differences and my insufficient recognition of the vanishing past. But as she also sees my views of a growing global sense of commonality as colonising and homogenising, I guess I can’t win.

When I was commissioned to write this article I was told to be provocative, controversial–and brief. Clearly the points I raised require greater nuance and elaboration, and I am grateful to those who have helped me by responding. I believe it is possible to have sharp disagreements on these issues without personalising them, and I regret that my comment about Eve Sedgwick was read by some as an attack.I also plead (cheerfully) guilty to Donald Morton’s delightful allegation that by refusing to enter into a dispute about the governance of the English Department at SUNY, Albany, I have apparently failed to support “the worldwide solidarity of the working class”.

1. Lisa Duggan: “Making it perfectly queer” Socialist Review, 22:1 Jan-March 1992 p.26

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