Queer Theory and Poststructuralist Theory

February 17, 2009

Invisible LivesThe presentation of transgendered issues within queer theory does not account for the quotidian living conditions of transgendered people. The political objections to this field are clear: queer theory begins its analysis with little thought of the individuals designated as the objects of study. At best, this perspective is an unfortunate and unacceptable oversight; at worst it belies a kind of academic inquiry that is contemptuous and dismissive of the social world. […] In order to better understand queer theory, then, a discussion of poststructuralism is required.

Poststructuralism is associated with two French thinkers, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Both Foucault and Derrida advocate what is known as an antifoundationalist perspective, characterized by a refusal to accept individual social agents as “masters” of their own lives, identities, and worlds. […] Poststructuralism challenges this assumption and asks us to consider the ways in which subjects are constituted in and through social institutions and the language employed by these administrative bodies. Rather than searching for some essential origin or telos, poststructuralism seeks to examine the constitution of subjectivity in social life.

Foucault […] begins by considering the claim that sexuality has been repressed historically, that it has been silenced due to its controversial nature. Foucault labels this theory the “repressive hypothesis”. In contrast to this view, Foucault demonstrates the production of sexuality in a variety of administrative, juridical, and medical domains. The issue is not that speech about sexuality has been prohibited, but rather that it has been prescribed.


Derrida raises questions similar to those of Foucault. He is interested in examining what he refers to as “binary oppositions” – that is, pairs of concepts whose terms are diametrically opposed, such as “man/woman” or “nature/culture” – ultimately break down, since each term can only achieve its value in relation to its apparent “opposite”.


Three common themes in the work of Foucault and Derrida exemplify their antifoundationalist stance: (1) they reject a voluntaristic understanding of agency, in which individuals are responsible for their destiny; (2) they conceive of the productive nature of power; and (3) they demand reflection on the specific terms chosen (such as names, identities or nations) as the basis for political action.


By privileging literary and cultural objects, and by ignoring the social and institutional relations in which these objects are located and embedded, queer theory enacts a restricted use of the notion of “text” – a narrow conception of writing and inscription that is incongruent with a poststructuralist project.


[Q]ueer theory as it is currently practiced must be challenged because it exhibits a remarkable insensitivity to the substantive issues of transgendered people’s everyday lives. Given this utter disregard for how transgendered people live, a rejection of queer theory based on such a political argument is both worthy and warranted. […] It is because queer theory considers only certain cultural and literary objects appropriate for examination, and because it is merely interested in an application of poststructuralist ideas to these objects, that the lives, bodies, and experiences of transgendered people are eclipsed.

From Invisible Lives – The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People by Viviane K. Namaste


One Response to “Queer Theory and Poststructuralist Theory”

  1. queen emily Says:

    She’s good. The point about privileging literary and cultural objects is an important one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Lit girl and think she makes a too strong distinction between cultural objects and the real world (in that cultural objects are part of that real world, and texts exert an influence on other texts–ie you can see the influence of newspaper sensationalism and degendering in legal outcomes), but it’s still a good point. You have to look at things like laws in order to understand how people’s lives are produced socially, cos those things set limits on what actions are not just socially acceptable but legally possible.

    Just as an aside, Foucault doesn’t easily fit as a post-structuralist, he can also quite easily be considered a structuralist.

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