The Crisis of Queer Theory and/in Altman’s “Globalism”

by Donald Morton

© all rights reserved

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

For several decades now, the discussion of gender and sexuality in the academy and the media of the post-industrial democracies has been dominated by (post)structuralist-inspired cultural theories that have consistently privileged the question of “desire” (and the associated concepts, pleasure, playfulness, signification, discursivity, textuality, undecidability, indeterminacy, unknowing, power, performance, ) ; displaced or altogether dismissed the question of “need” (and the associated concepts, labor, class, surplus value, exploitation, mode of production, conceptuality, reliable knowledges, praxis ).1

As the culmination of desire-theory, “Queer Theory” has realized–in its fullest form to date–the Lyotardian shift from a “conceptual economy model” to a “libidinal economy model” of culture. 2 This shift is basically the cultural correlate of the deep shift towards governmental and economic conservatism that has taken place in liberal democracies in the past two decades. During this period, desire-theory has provided an ideological “interpretation” of cultural change needed to reassure the citizens of those countries of their moral righteousness and their political legitimacy. The focus on the “libidinal” has basically distracted people’s attention from the deep exploitative economic restructuring taking place globally. Today the distractive “pleasures” of desire-theory appear increasingly empty, as it becomes clear–even to the mainstream–that while citizens have been focused on “desire,” the difference of class (“need”) in the US (as elsewhere), has grown ever sharper.

This increasing recognition of desire-theory’s (and Queer Theory’s) complicity in the class system is creating anxiety among bourgeois commentators. Indicative here is Jeffrey Weeks’s recent book, Invented Moralities, which, in a rearguard action, tries to distract attention once again from economics to ethics to cover over the failure of the gay/lesbian/queer mainstream to work towards economic justice. 3

Another example: Martin Duberman’s recent expression of indignation at a left-wing author for not giving due respect to “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jeffrey Weeks, Marjorie Garber, and Judith Butler,” those widely celebrated champions of “desire-theory” and suppressors of “need-theory,” whom Duberman seems to place beyond critique. 4

Altman’s text is deeply implicated in these conflicts. While acknowledging the struggle between desire-theory (“difference”) and need-theory (“political economy”), like all liberals unwilling to argue for the priority of one over the other, Altman posits the two as autonomous theories in an unresolvable “standoff” with each other. While he critiques some representatives of desire-theory for mystifying the issues (Sedgwick by writing “bad prose” and Halperin by sanctifying Foucault), Altman promotes his own mystification. He defensively locates “true knowledge” of sexual politics in those (like himself) engaged in “the movement,” hinting–without argument–at a vague continuity between today’s “movement” and the “movement” of an earlier historical moment. He implies, without any philosophical argument, that it is their “experience” that makes activists automatically the repositories of “true knowledge.”

Ultimately, his complaints about (post)modern theory are not really aimed at Sedgwick or Halperin as such (since he basically shares their political position of “undecidedness”) but at theory itself; and his text becomes an anti-intellectual apologia for untheorized activism that fetishizes (gay) common sense. While he acknowledges the effects of capitalist commodification on sexuality and sexual politics, he nowhere forthrightly sets himself against capitalism or explains how one could oppose it effectively without prioritizing need-theory (historical materialism). For him “revolution” refers not to a principled and theorized revolt against the exploitation of workers (gay, straight ) but merely the “revolutionary” “opportunities” capitalism has brought to some previously marginalized persons.

Altman’s text is symptomatic of the tremendous pressure those who scorn theory are under to explain themselves in an increasingly complex world. What otherwise could account for the violent paternalism of his claim that the earlier gay/lesbian studies is the “father” and (post)modern queer theory the “mother” of today’s sexual politics, “parents” locked in an unhappy marriage, while he heavily identifies/sides with “daddy”? In the same “proprietary” vein, this text also illuminates what Altman meant by his earlier call for gay/lesbian/queer studies to “get global”: getting “global” means merely to help spread around the world the kind of (AIDS or other) activism inwhich he personally engages. 5 It does NOT mean striving for the worldwide solidarity of the working class, as I recently found, when I e-mailed Altman a petition protesting the overthrow of a democratically elected chair of the English Department at the State University of New York at Albany.

Altman, who would doubtless have immediately protested a case of gay-bashing in any part of the world, replied that it didn’t “seem wise for someone from another country to take a position in the affairs of a U.S. University where I have no way of checking the full story.”6 The petition made a minimal demand not that signers “take sides” in some obscure internal dispute, but only support the restoration of democratic university governance, a standard which should hardly be “relativized” by appeal to “another side of the story.” In any case, one must certainly ask what kind of “global” gay activist can speak as if any university in the world is “foreign”?

(For more on the current crisis of liberalism, see my ‘Literary/Cultural Studies and the Crisis of Liberalism in the US Academy Today’ and for more on the struggle over “theory”, see Rob Wilkie, ‘Postmodernism as Usual: Theory in the American Academy Today’.

Donald Mortons most recent text on sexual politics is The Material Queer: A LesBiGay Cultural Studies Reader, Westview Press, 1996. He is co-editor of the new journal, Transformation: Marxist Boundary Work in Theory, Economics, Politics, and Culture, the second issue of which, The ‘Invention’ of the Queer: Marxism, Lesbian and Gay Studies, Capitalism, is also focussed on sexual politics.


1. For “Australian” examples, see Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, eds. Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.; Toby Miller, The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture, and the Postmodern Subject. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

2. See Jean-Francáois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, Trans. Iaian H. Grant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

3. Jeffrey Weeks, Invented Moralities: Sexual Values in an Age of Uncertainty, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. A counter-example in gay studies committed to economic justice (need-theory) is Nicola Field, Over the Rainbow: Money, Class and Homophobia, London: Pluto Press, 1995.

4. Martin Duberman, “Bringing Back the Enlightenment.” [Review of Michael

Tomasky, Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America, in The Nation, July 1, 1996:26.

5. See Dennis Altman, “My America and Yours: A Letter to US Activists.” Outlook: National Lesbian & Gay Quarterly 8 (Spring 1990): 62-65.

6. E-mail from Dennis Altman to Donald Morton, June 24, 1996. Those interested in the events at Albany may e-mail Donald Morton for more information at [email protected]. or go to SUNY-Albany Dossier and Petition

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