Remaining critically queer; and being haunted

Dimitris Papanikolaou (St Cross College, University of Oxford)

 

This talk focuses on what comes after a queer epistemicide: a certain haunting.

Queer theory has been hauntological since its very beginning, from Teresa de Lauretis’s editorial in the 1990s issue of differences, to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s passages giving rise to theorizations of ‘queer time’, ‘feeling backwards’, ‘archives of feelings’ or ‘apparitional pasts’. Summoning the disavowed, being alert to the ways non-normative desire haunts texts and lives, and assessing the ways in which the queer past (and those dead and unmemorialized) informs present queer voices and political movements, have, in a sense, always been central to queer theoretical projects.

 

But my effort will be to show how haunting has worked in the other direction too. I start by analyzing some recent cultural texts. I will present a ‘classic’ theorization of queer haunting by the past (say, Didier Eribon’s analysis of his own survivor’s guilt regarding those who died of AIDS and his feeling that his own life continues to be haunted by their projects and what they could have made). And then I will contrast it to scenarios where the lives, performances and assemblies of those in the past are shown haunted by what happened next.

 

A famous scene in The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst (read contra Eribon’s reading of the same scene), the play Idoles by Christophe Honoré, the way soundscapes are used in the film 120 bpm, and Anohni’s recent video ‘I will survive’, published online on 31 October 2020, will be used as examples of this latter tendency. They all show how in a critical present, the (queer) past is being presented as haunted by the present that calls on it. As political gestures, they showcase the effort to remain critically queer and to offer new models for queer historiography and politics.

 

I will argue that such cultural texts constitute not only memorial, but also analytical, gestures with wider ramifications. They show complex haunting to be a necessary queer historiographical model, especially informed by a present of crisis and shared vulnerability. They also urge us to rethink the complex dialectics between queer epistemology and diverse LGBTQ+ projects of (narrating) the past and the present.

 

This is not irrelevant to what happens with a new trend of queer historiographical projects, especially outside the Anglosaxon context. We now tend to return to earlier models of “local gay history” and review them together with more complex analyses of queer identification and belonging that transcend “eurocentric”, stable and public gay identification. We used to think of these two sets of models as parallel to or correctives of each other, or as in direct opposition to one another. But in a revised lexicon of queer historiography, characteristic of today’s queer critical work in the global East and South, we now see these models of queer pasts in a hauntological relationship with each other. Today, ‘queering’ local traditions of gender and sexuality and arguing for their irreducible difference more and more means also a constant acknowledgement of how they were haunted by what they could not articulate, those projects of queer citizenship, gay visibility and a sexually democratic public sphere that seemed disconnected from them. On the other hand, writing the history of contemporary queer movements as movements with a concrete (global and local) political history, is now more and more seen as a project haunted by its own disavowals and simplifications. Talking about these disavowals, and the power dynamics that provoked them, is where a critical historicization of local queer movements starts and where new political agendas are constantly being redrawn.

 

As Anohni’s video reminds us, we are constantly haunted not only by the past we can embrace, but also by a near-future we can construct as still to come, in multiple times, in queer failing and remaking, in plural acts and remembrances, at various moments of political exigency and queer recalling: ‘We will be remembered for what we have done… and for what we are about to do’.