AnthroBites is a series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.
Our guest for this episode is Margot Weiss, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Wesleyan University and author of Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (2011). In this episode, Weiss speaks to contributing editor Jara Carrington about queer anthropology.
Selected People and Texts Mentioned in This Episode
- Esther Newton and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick are two scholars frequently cited as foundational to queer anthropology.
- Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex” had a significant impact on the study of gender and sexuality.
- The ritualized homosexuality debate, prompted by this 1993 edited collection by Gilbert Herdt and Deborah Elliston’s 1995 response.
- Fear of a Queer Planet (1993), edited by Michael Warner.
- Scholars reflect on the work of José Esteban Muñoz.
- The collected work of Jafari S. Allen, which explores new avenues in queer theory.
Learn More about Queer Anthropology
- “Queer Anthropology: An Introduction,” Retrospectives collection published in the November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology
- “Teaching Queer Anthropology,” Teaching Tools post building on the Retrospectives collection
- “Queer Futures,” Theorizing the Contemporary series edited by Tom Boellstorff and Cymene Howe
- The Association for Queer Anthropology website
- “Black Queer Anthropology,” special section in the April 2012 issue of Transforming Anthropology
Jara Carrington: Just to jump right in, if you could give a brief discussion about “what is queer anthropology?”
Margot Weiss: Great question. Well, maybe we should start with queer . . .
JC: That sounds good!
MW: I mean, I’m partial to Eve Sedgwick’s classic definition—that’s from the early 90s—where she talks about queer as the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances; lapses and excesses of meaning, when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender or sexuality aren’t made, or can’t be made, to signify monolithically. So that’s a mouthful, but I really like the attention to those possibilities, excesses, dissonances. Sort of modes of opening the open mesh. But then I also really like Michael Warner’s note, which is also from 1993, that queer is resistant to regimes of the normal—and he’s thinking not only about heteronormativity, or heterosexuality, but also a wide field of normalization, including the “normal business” of the academy. So, taken together, those are my favorite definitions of queer, and they point us beyond LGBTQA etc. identity to really focus on transgression of, or exclusion from, normativities. Especially, but not exclusively, heteronormativity.
And then at the same time, and you can hear that in Eve Sedgwick’s definition too, queer carries with it a kind of aspirational movement, and this is with Jose Muñoz’s 2009 note that queerness is about an insistence on potentiality, a concrete possibility for another world. So it’s both something that is at odds with the normal or the dominant, and a call or a desire to imagine otherwise. So, for me, taking those understandings of queer, queer anthropology asks after those normativities, which of course vary across cultures: about the different ways that sexuality intersects with gender, with race, with nation; about the perils and possibilities that alternative modes of desire, or sex, or intimacy offer. It’s not, or at least it’s not only a shorthand for, say, the study of gays and lesbians, or same-sex identities. It’s also a call to think about those intersections of sexual and gendered norms and power.
JC: That is a great way to conceptualize it, and to think about it a little bit more broadly than perhaps some people might think about when they think about queer anthropology and its object of study. You have already mentioned a couple of major influences that you see in the field. Can you talk a little bit about the history of what we now call queer anthropology, and maybe how it has changed over time, and perhaps how its object of study has also changed over time?
MW: Well, you know, this is an open field that has a lot of—there’s a lot of different ways, I guess, to tell this history. So I will give you a few different, maybe parallel, lineages. One place to start would be with feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” where she argued for a new sexuality studies that would think about sex not as an identity, but what she called a “vector of oppression.” She was interested in the various ways that sexuality and sexual practices were surveilled and punished by the state. She was thinking about sex workers, BDSM, public sex—any sex outside a sort of normative, marital, heterosexual bed, we’ll say. And so that is one very generative place to sort of start thinking about queer anthropology in 1984.
But then, another way to think about it is to note that anthropology has always been a little bit queer, and sexuality has been a part of anthropology since its inception. I mean, not always in ways we’d find laudable today, but certainly in the beginning. You can’t think about how important kinship studies are to anthropology without already thinking about something like heteronormativity, though of course that’s not what people called it at the time. So that’s another way to think about it. And even there, Margaret Mead was really interested in gender norms and how they varied around the world. Even Evans-Pritchard, who is certainly not held up as a laudable queer anthropologist today—classic British social anthropologist—he wrote about what he called “sexual inversion” among the Azande in southern Sudan in the 60s and 70s, but that wasn’t quite queer anthropology.
So from that, I would say, the really groundbreaking work in what would become queer anthropology was in the 70s and 80s; and this is work that included: Esther Newton’s 1979 Mother Camp, a book about camp and drag performers in the Midwest; Evelyn Blackwood The Many Faces of Homosexuality, and Gil Herdt’s Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia. So this is work in the 70s and 80s that’s looking at same-sex sexuality in other societies, but it’s also work that starts to raise really interesting theoretical and analytical questions abut how to think about “homosexuality” (and that’s in scare quotes) or same-sex sexuality, or gender nonconforming practices around the globe. For instance, if we think about The Many Faces of Homosexuality, are we understanding that homosexuality elsewhere is going to look or seem the same as how we might understand our own arrangements of homosexuality, or gayness, or other iterations of same-sex sexuality. So that is work that is foundational, but also raises critical questions. I can give you a quick example?
JC: Yeah, that would be great!
MW: So I mentioned Gil Herdt’s work with the Sambia—it’s not a real name—in Papua New Guinea. And this is about a series of rituals in which the Sambian boys ritually fellated older boys in order to digest their semen. And all of this to become men, to grow as men. And, I mean, there’s a lot to say about that, but Herdt initially described those practices as “ritualized homosexuality.” Gil was really interested in this practice that was society-wide, where, in order to grow up to be a man, you would need to ingest, orally and directly, semen. But even the way that I described that as fellatio is really an open question. In the mid-90s, Deborah Elliston writes a critique of Herdt’s use of the term ritualized homosexuality and argued that instead of seeing this as an example of global same-sex sexualities, we should really think about these practices in context. And, in the context of Melanesia, we should think about them in terms of other ritualized fluid exchanges. Other fluids like blood, like tree sap, so that semen isn’t a special category—a sexual category—necessarily. She argues we should call these rites “semen practices” and try to desexualize the language we use to talk about them, so that we are not assuming that what looks to us like fellatio means fellatio. So it’s a debate not just about the language—like ritualized homosexuality versus semen practices—but what these practices mean, and how we can interpret them when we shift cultural contexts. And especially if the point of this is to make “masculine” men, this doesn’t really seem very queer at all.
So, this kind of work, I read it as really grappling with our language, our concepts, how they travel, how we can even start to think about—and now we don’t even know really what to call it, homosexuality, same-sex sexuality—these practices in other locations. In the 70s is when what would become queer anthropology is institutionalized with the Anthropology Research Group on Homosexuality (ARGOH). In 1987 that organization changed its name to SOLGA, the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, and in 2010 we changed the name of the group again to AQA, the Association for Queer Anthropology. And so you can even see in here the shift from a research group on homosexuality in the 70s, to an allied group of gay and lesbian anthropologists as kind of an identity organization with a variety of research interests, to a queer anthropology that points in a direction other than identity and toward a kind of analytic. This is also reflecting what happened in the 90s as queer theory and queer studies really took off across the humanities and the humanistic social sciences, so that the 90s and 2000s in anthropology also saw a flourishing of work in queer anthropology, all taking up core questions of sex, gender, power, identity, social normativity . . .
JC: Well, and that segues us really nicely: I’d like to know a little bit more about how you feel like queer anthropology has influenced or informed your own work.
MW: Absolutely. My first book was Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. That book is an ethnography of BDSM communities in the San Francisco Bay area. I guess I should say BDSM is short for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, and sadomasochism. You know, going back to somebody like Rubin, of course you can think about BDSM as a minoritarian sexual community; it’s definitely nonnormative in a whole variety of ways. So flogging or mastering, the art of domination, these are nonnormative sexual practices—they are practices that are policed and surveilled—but they also have generated all sorts of new ways of thinking about, for instance, consent or desire, that are nonnormative in empowering ways. But at the same time, and this goes against a lot of what is claimed about queer communities including BDSM communities, when you think of them as only transgressive or only nonnormative or counternormative. In other ways, BDSM really reproduces, or replicates, norms. And particularly in certain norms of whiteness and ways of “not noticing” race, racialization, whiteness, and class.
That book, and that work, was really thinking about BDSM as both oppositional—counter to norms—but also maybe surprisingly normative: in the form of the work on the self, the access to markets in sex toys and very expensive products that are really important to BDSM, and then deeper cultural assumptions about free choice and who really has the ability to freely choose to perform different kinds of really power-laden roles in the realm of fantasy, intimacy. So, you know, even something as simple as thinking about the word slave. Many of the white people I talked to in the field just didn’t see the master–slave dynamics or slave as it is conceptualized in the scene as related at all to the history of slavery in the United States, or white supremacy. So, thinking about race, class, capitalism, gender, as really intersecting norms, you are not only thinking about BDSM as a nonnormative sexual practice but also how other norms might be reproduced and strengthened even through transgressive sexual practices. So that to me is a queer analytic, I guess, a focus on norms and power in a really intersectional way of thinking about sexuality. A lot of the people that I talked to were heterosexual, though certainly not all of them, so it is less about gay and lesbian identity and much more about thinking about sex and power and normativity. And really different iterations of normativity.
The work that I am doing now is about queer left activists in New York and Chicago and Montreal, and it’s about the intellectual work that queer left activists do to imagine an alternative world. Questions of vision, of desire, in the context of what some people have called the “nonprofit-industrial complex”—the ways that organizations are dependent on certain kinds of metrics, of grant funding, and structures, somewhat like our contemporary universities, that are disciplining in terms of thinking new thoughts and are sort of, hmm, not queer in the way that they normalize and reproduce ways that we’ve already learned how to think, rather than opening new pathways. That project, I guess, is a little more—it has a different relationship to queer than the first book. It’s about queer politics more directly, but like the first book, is interested in thinking about queer politics in relation to sex, economy, power. And, like Techniques of Pleasure, it’s indebted to queer studies, people who are really theorizing queer as an otherwise, or thinking otherwise, because that is so central to the activists. Again, it’s not really an identity, it’s not really about activism of or for LGBT folks. It’s a push away from the more liberal, rights-based gay and lesbian political organizations in the U.S., what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormative” kinds of gay politics, and really thinking about queerness as a more open-ended pursuit of another world. So that’s really centrally engaged in crucial questions in queer studies, and that’s been a real inspiration for me, a real help in thinking through some of the material.
JC: You participated in a Retrospectives [collection] recently about the future of queer anthropology. Is that kind of how you see queer anthropology going forward in the future, is moving toward this analytic and away from certain kinds of parameters of what queer anthropology should be looking at?
MW: I mean, yes and no. I also think that tension between thinking about queer as based in same-sex sexuality, but reaching for something else, is really central to the field in all of its iterations. Part of my interest in queer is that it’s a term, it’s a category that frustrates us. It’s never quite what we want it to be, never quite does the work that we want it to do, but I am interested in that frustration as something that brings us to new work, new ways of thinking; it pushes us in different directions. Queer becomes more open, it shifts in different directions, through those contestations. Even those early contestations, those are productive contestations that bring us somewhere else. So, to me, I think one of the things that is interesting is that there is more and more queer anthropology that doesn’t always call itself queer anthropology. But in a way, it’s sort of—and this has happened in feminist anthropology and other fields—there is a way that people are doing queer work outside of the strict parameters of sexuality. Some of that work is more or less legible as queer but that, in my view, should be. So, like, work on nonhuman animals or multispecies ethnography, work on toxicity—that’s really pushing at the boundaries of what counts as queer if we are not talking about people, or bodies, or desire. We are talking across human/nonhuman boundaries.
There is a ton of work coming out in queer of color critique and queer indigenous studies: so, Jafari Allen, Shaka McGlotten, both of their work in queer Black anthropology, really thinking about the aftermath of slavery and the impact of slavery as a profound degendering, and so what does that do, especially in Black trans and queer studies and politics? We can call this intersectional queer anthropology, but we really have to deepen our understanding of intersectionality as that crucial Black feminist insight that in order to understand sexuality, we must understand its intersections with gender, with race, with class, with nation. And when we do that, it really challenges the question of the kinds of normativities we think we are talking about, which has been an issue from the start. So we can complexify queer, we can complexify those relationalities, we can complexify what we think we mean by normativity when we are thinking about it in these intersectional ways.
The last set of new work, to me, returns to Gayle Rubin to think about sexuality and normativity in broader terms, again, than gay or lesbian sexual identity. International sex work, or sex tourism—there has been a lot of new work exploring the racialized and gendered fantasies of desire in Brazil, in Cuba, the Dominican Republic—work on BDSM, work on polyamory. And global LGBT activism, as we are thinking about how Western concepts and funding streams and organizations move transnationally and then are encountered, changed, remade in local settings: that complex interaction between the global and the local when thinking about activism today. Those are all ways to think about sexuality, normativity, power, so queer, but in a more complex, global intersectionality. And again, away from that fixation on gay and lesbian identity. So I guess it’s a lot of new directions!
JC: It’s an exciting time to be a part of the field!
MW: I think so! I mean, I like that. I hope it gets messier and messier.
AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by Jara Carrington. Special thanks to Siobhán McGuirk for her role as Executive Producer. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at email@example.com.
Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.