Queer Morphologies: A Workshop Pushing the Boundaries of Queer Theory


Posted on September 19th, 2011 by Vina Tran
 2 comments  

Read Nikolas Oscar Sparks’ Queer Theory Roundup from Feminist News, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender’s biannual newsletter below and download video podcasts from each session:

Perhaps one of the best examples of the consistent interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration at Columbia University occurred this past semester between the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. The Law School’s compliment to IRWaG, the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law describes itself as a place where students interested in the study of Gender and Sexuality law will find a rich and diverse number of course offerings (including the nation’s first Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic), many faculty whose teaching and scholarship focus in path-breaking ways on an array of problems in the domains of sexuality and gender, and many student organizations and students who share an interest in the study and practice of gender and sexuality law. The similarities between the two spaces offered the perfect combination to support Professor Elizabeth Povinelli of Anthropology and Professor Katherine Franke of the Law School, who convened this year’s Queer Theory Workshop titled “Queer Morphologies: Kinship, Friendship, Intimacy.”

Professor Povinelli, director of IRWaG, and Professor Franke, co-director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, shared duties of introducing and directing each session throughout the semester, but both remained a strong presence throughout. Beginning in January with Kevin Ohi of Boston College, the workshop included such renowned scholars as Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania), Libby Adler (Northeastern University), Joseph Fischel (University of Chicago), David Halperin (University of Michigan), and Kathryn Stockton (University of Utah). Each participant came in with the task of addressing or expanding the particular ways in which we address the field of Queer Theory.

As conference organizers described in their preface to the workshop:

Queer Theory emerged as a way of thinking about social and cultural conditions that cut diagonally across Feminist, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies, which quickly proliferated into a series of theoretically and disciplinary inflected approaches. Queer Morphologies asks what conceptual, topical, and rhetorical forms have emerged over the last decades—and why these? What is the history of present queer approaches to social, political and cultural life, and what might be their legacies? We are particularly interested in reflections on Queer Theory’s contemporary focus on affect, friendship, intimacy, and kinship and the rhetorical forms these seem to demand or solicit, particularly in light of the prominence of marriage debates in the West, the emergence of Islamaphobia in the North, and portraits of sexual colonialism in the South.

Workshop participants found their own points of entry into this prompt, coming from disciplines such as English, History, Political Science, and Law. Ohi, the workshop’s first participant, explored the concept of queer transmission through the William Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom. The paper generated a riveting discussion in collaboration with respondent, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature Katherine Biers.

From a different perspective, Joseph Fischel offered an explication of queer intimacy through an engagement with the particular juridical and social discourses that vilify queerness and those convicted unjustly as sex offenders. Fischel, currently finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, received several friendly challenges from workshop participants. Similarly, renowned queer theory scholar David Halperin of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found his chapter—an excerpt from his upcoming book How to Be Gay—under a bit of scrutiny. However, both Fischel and Halperin, true to the format of the workshop, used the particular critiques of their work to propel the space into an extended conversation, producing completely new sets of questions.

The final event of the semester featured Professor Kathryn Stockton of the University of Utah and her paper “Queer Theory, Queer Children, and Kid Orientalism: The Sexual Child in a Racialized World.” Stockton, pulling from a variety of disciplines and theoretical frameworks, attempted to examine or locate the “ghostly gay child.” Drawing upon documentaries, feature films, and novels, Stockton drew out the relationship between this figure and the concept of latency, or that which has yet to manifest. Stockton’s paper, which seemed as much a workshop piece as a performative presentation, offered a rousing conclusion to a truly stellar semester of collaborations and discussions.

While the workshop’s esteemed participants and its graduate seminar component taught by Professor Franke ensured an engaged turnout for each session, the series attracted a diverse and engaged group from all across the Columbia community. Doctoral candidate in the department of English and Comparative Literature Nijah Cunningham had the following to say about the workshop:

From one session to the next, Queer Morphologies exceeded my understanding of a workshop. Not only did it serve as a site for manufacturing and building on ideas, but it also featured a set of diverse styles of inquiry and extended conversations that crafted critical linkages that were as innovative as they were unfixed. This versatility and constant reflection was at once refreshing and challenging. I cannot remember a session that I left without a feeling of curious excitement or the weight of some newfound knowledge. Each paper seemed to step in a different direction, but when I look back on them as a whole, it becomes apparent that they share a common imperative for generating new forms of knowledge. It is this primacy on form expressed in the idea of morphologies that made the workshop so successful and rewarding, as well as fashioned a notion of queer theory that was productive because it was so hard to pin down.

Cunningham, an active participant in IRWaG, was one of numerous regular audience members. His statement expresses a general perception of the events hosted by the institute and its collaborators. As the largest event put on this semester, it stands out as a hallmark for IRWaG’s commitment to the pursuit of scholarly work that continually allows itself to be revisited and refashioned in the interest of a collective pursuit.

2 comments

  1. Feminist News article on last semester's series: Queer Morphologies: A Workshop Pushing the Boundaries of Queer Theory http://t.co/PrYcFhK2

  2. Feminist News article on last semester's series: Queer Morphologies: A Workshop Pushing the Boundaries of Queer Theory http://t.co/PrYcFhK2

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