Sunday, June 19, 2005

Queer Eyes

Its my brothers birthday today.

I'd hoped to write somehting deep and prfound to mark the occasion. But I've had the flue. I've pulled an astonishing amount of snot out of my head in the past week. I'd hoped not to move this weekend but yesterday dragged my sorry arse and snotty nose out of bed to go into the city. I'd booked a ticket ages ago to go hear Judith Butler at Angel Place. So in the middle of Sydney - around the corner from the grey corporate blandness of martin place - I walked into an oasis of dykedom. Wow! bookish lesbians everywhere! plus those nice slender bespectacled men one sees at Gleebooks, or in gender studies seminars. Eye candy, eye candy gaydar felt happy as I chatted with various people from now, from before, from later on.....

It is important to make such facile observations - coz Judith Butler is famous for describing sexual categories in terms of iterability (no not iritability - but what could be culturally 'read'), and perfomrativity. Butler's theories threw out the essentialist leanings of idenity politics and ascribed queerness to a function of Gaydars. (How to pass, how not to pass etc.). I'm being atrociously facile - because I'm trying to situate her theories in the context of a social history which I'm going to try to succinctly outline below.

About 15 years ago when I had just started uni, lesbians were a distinct subset on the fringes of the women's colective. There were a few glorious tall types like Catriona McKenzie who sailed above everyones as a supremely cool editor of Tharunka. She didn't need any coming out groups, women's collectives and refused any positions of token lesbian. Then there were the other official lesbians, clad in lavender headscarves, or lots of denim, or like one chick in "women and philosophy" clad in black jeans,white sandshoes, femininst t-shirts and thick glasses, and shyly peculating if or lecturer was gay or not. the women's collective had sepcial books for members who htought they might be coming out. Like Radclyffe Hall's "the well of loneliness". Lesbians were a subset of feminism, another minority, who needed dental dams. No wonder I was straight.

Then suddenly in the mid nineties something exciting happened. women's collectives were boosted by the famous third wave of feminism, and people started talking about "Queer". Queer involved Dykes, Poofs and Trannys. Queers used slang to neame themselves. Queers wore better clothes than most student activists (I *still* see girls with long hair, loose t-shirts and long indian skirts coming out of the SRC), listened to better music and had a lot more fun. It seemed that queer came out of or merged with the rave scene. this was different to big post rat parties which were largely a lycra gayboy phenomenon (everyone looked like a flouro condom full of wallnuts). People wore more vintage clothes, flares, ties, tie dyed underwear, tie died hair, crazy bodiy peircings and lots of fluff. Boys wore dresses, and dykes wore lipstick. Oh blush and twitter my twat was on fire! I was a straight settled science student and a serious long haired loose lavender t-shirted, indian skirted capital f feminist so I saw most of this from the sidelines. Damn waste I reckon but, like many of the 'straight' womens' collective members -I did eventually cut my hair and come out of the closet - confused and nervous as a debutant around so many fishnets and fake fur coats.

So Butler's seminal (love that word) writings on performativity, passing and postsubjective philosophy -published in the early 1990's, became idenitified with a zeitgeist where queerness, campness, performing, play, ambiguity and general raunchiness was hip as hell. Her own provocations, within the rubrics of (post) femininst philosophy and queer theory, have largely obscured some of the more subtle and politically imperative work she has done on subjectivity, race and imperialism. I knew of Butler, knew the key words, but only really read her closely when writing my honours these 2 years ago. There's a line, from the intro of Bodies that Matter, whihc I've added to my Walter Benjamin Aphorisms as a kind of daily meditation, often repeated to myself. "the task will be to consider this threat and disruption not as a permanent contestation of social norms condemned to the pathos of perpetual fialure, but rather as a critical resource in the struggle to re articulate the very terms of symbolic legitimacy and intellgibility"

OK it probably comes across as a bit convoluted and maybe the cut and paste has made her sound like Vladimir Illyich - (wot is to be done? the task must be!). Sorry Judith, sorry everyone else. What I love in this quote is her sincerity, and the imperative tone to reclaiming what is excluded, derided, ridiculed as socially abject as a source of power. This is very derridean (there is power in the margins, power in the frame, power in the hands of the working man..... ershitt that didn't quite work did it?) And really it is about much more than claiming some sort of transgressive power to trashy queens and sad lesbian eunuchs, but of emphasising the potency of those who are excluded by dominant social discourses- and showing that dominant social disocurses are constructed in order to contain and exclude those beings it describes as abject. I like this because of an inherent democracy at its heart. It opens its arms to dags, fashion failures, social losers and other dregs of humanity amongst which i so often count myself (Many years in dole queues - kinda keeps a person humble and grumpy). I'll try to talk more about this later.

According to pop-academic folklore one of Butler's most provocative statements was her refusal to identify as a lesbian, lesbian theorist. Apparently she insisted on retaining a stated idenity as 'fluid' even into such times where such a term implied sleazy freaks on exstacy trying to pull owmen into threeseomes with their girlfriends......... So I was intrigued to finally see her in the flesh. Would she be ubercool? glamourous? seductive and smooth as sandra bernhardt?, or as ernestm compelling and contained (and poorly coiffured) as Liz Grosz?

On Saturday, Butler sprited up the stairs to the podium, a slight figure clad in black. She struck me looking like on of the petite but dignified grey haired dykes I've seen at the Paris Lesbian Film Festivals, or occasionally in Sydney. Pants, Boots, some sort of top. Appropriately neutered for a philosopher, not femme nor butch, and with the requisite floppy but neat short grey hair. Not fashionable, but not out of fashion. It's wrong of me to pay so much attention to describing the clothes and phsyical appearance of a woman, instead of her words, but I've had access to the words and I was there largely to see how they melded with the physical presence of the writer. Also to my sheer delight (tragic drooling dyke), everything in her body language is iterably , panty wettingly sapphic. Sheer bliss! the leaning on the table, quizzical hand gestures, coy smirks, wry humour, occasional strides forwards and backwards. this was more salient in the questions and answers with the audience, but sustained throughout her paper. A physical presence that is slightly masculine, almost mimicking the classic charismatic professor stereotype, but retaining something that is profoundly not masculine, and yet not the fluttering femininity of gushes and giggles. Professor Butler has expended far more eloquence on this subject than I could ever hope to, so I guess she is acutely aware of that jene sais quoi of female presence. Latinos call a woman who is too female (not too feminine) "embra" but even this is perjorative and doesn't come near to describing what it is what we are when we are.......it.

I have worked on my own lesbotic iterability in the past ten years since I abandoned any committment to heterosexuality. Cutting my hair and buying a leather jacket was not enough. Anyone will tell you that beady eyed baby dykes aren't much of a turn on. There is something in the desperation implied by an imploring stare that doesn't seem to work for women. It does work for men, curiously enough. (Low cut tops and imploring stares, battered by fluttering eyelashes - believe me it worked for me and can work for you too). Fortunately my eyes are mostly shielded by glasses, so any askance glances are reined in - but I remember when I met Anna - it was how her eyes looked inwards, rather than implored me that really seduced me. And weirdly enough - about the time that I started liking dogs and my waist thickened I finally started to get "the look" from other dykes.

What happened? I wet myself with joy!

Ahem. What happened? Staring is an interesting thing. Sapphic iterability is largely conveyed through a language of glances, which bespeak interest, appeal, respect, attitude, desire, fear. gosh oh gosh, these words ain't enough at all. Its about holding your body - not like there's a pole up your arse either, but the butch dyke swagger is definitely cute as hell - if overtly tragic. In any case about the time I was able to presence myself as genuine sapphic product - I was also working about thirty hours a week as a life model. And I had long hair. No I wasn't femme, as such - and usually stalked the streets in french army pants, boots, beany and a security jacket. Plus on modelling days I was usually wearing my contact lenses. But I don't think it was the butch garb that did it. I think that spending 4 days a week naked, being paid to do yoga or to meditate while people stared at me for hours and hours - gave me the habit of having an internal sense of my physical presence, and also a comfort with meeting the gaze of others. My gaze back -in a life class is usually calm, curious but also calculated to be non threatening. (Oh shit - I betta go work on that chapter on the taboos surrounding the models gaze.....). I reckon I just took this habit into my clad realm of the street. So women, confronted by a calm steady gaze respond in different ways. Dykes either smile or do the microsecond flirty look away thing (Oh god I love it). SOme straight women meet my eyes, then blush and look away, others look back and smile. There's a whole lot more going on than sexual attraction/repulsion but other codes of psychological dominance, social identification, and heaps of other stuff. right now, my back and shoulders have just reminded me that I should stand up and stop typing. So I'll continue this later.

While gazing at Butler, I took notes, did a few cartoons and also recorded her thick noyyoik accent. She sounds like Carl Sagan on my recording. Oh Well. I'd borught a book to sign! (Undoing Gender) but felt too shy to go an apporach her. So I retired to cozy pub au coin to have a Latin Quarter moment with other postgrads......It was shortlived. Scurrying thorugh windtunnels to board a bus - a car blared past. A guy with a US flag bandanna stuck out is head and yelled out "THERE'S A PARTY IN HERE AND IT SMELLS LIKE SEMEN!!!!!" The skaters on stone steps of martin place ignored him, and I tried to hide my nausea.

1 comment:

gaylourdes said...

oh hey, thank you for detailing all that about judith's gestures and looks and stares and your gazing. i'd missed her talk, and was beside myself to see the picture in the sso which led me to enthusiastic ramblings about how much she looked like a sweet quiet (not very) dyke librarian who probably had strong ideas about exactly what kind or red wine she liked. i mean, everything you've said makes me think oh! of course, and how wonderful it must have been to see her speak.

and i'm really interested in your chapter about the models' gaze and associated taboos. I've been attempting an ethnography of sorts on a contemporary dance company's rehearsal process, and every now and then find myself caught out 'looking' during rehearsals (and also performance, cos it's been rather interactive). sometimes, exchanging a glance with one of the performers shares a thought or feeling, other times, i try to avoid their eyes, other times, they stare blankly past me.
i think a while ago, when i was doing feminist theatre studies, i got inundated with 'the gaze' and have spent the last few years dry retching and blaming it on gender and cultural studies. and film studies. gazing and looking, audienting, they can be damn interesting, especially when you're all caught up in it.

re butler and performantivity etc...i think it's the theory that is performative, not the sexuality, or the gender. hmm, that sounds like i'm stating the bleeding obvious, but i think i've just understood what i've been trying to say for a while. alternately, this is also an atrociously facile statement. i've been thinking of sexual categories (genders, sexualities) in terms of embodied experiences, and phenomenology. I like thinking of queer theories as performative gesturing, stage tropes, rooted in embodied queer realities, ie, the queer freaky things that queer freaky types do.