Brian Glavey

“Queer Theory and the Avant-Garde”

Queer theory’s investment in shame, humiliation, and embarrassment has had important implications for both queer politics and queer aesthetics. It also underlines the tension between the two, suggesting that queer theory often seems to have a problem with politics to the extent that it maintains a potentially embarrassing attachment to the aesthetic. This paper hopes to elucidate this attachment with an account of the intertwining histories of modern homosexuality and modernist aesthetics. In particular, I argue that much confusion is generated by a misunderstanding of queer theory’s connection with the tradition of the avant-garde, a misunderstanding that overemphasizes oppositional logics and segregates the avant-garde’s utopian from negative impulses. The result is a situation in which queer thought is corralled into overly stark dilemmas, choosing sides between negation and affirmation, drive and affect, the present and the future, and so on. A more robust attention to the way the aesthetic—even the avant-garde’s anti-aesthetic—resonates in both generative and repressive ways may help lead to a better description of queerness that avoids these zero-sum logics. Queerness might best be understood, I argue, not so much in light of the fact that it takes on the burden of figuring the death drive on the one hand, or the way it vibrates with the call of utopian modes of relationality on the other. Rather, what best describes the experience of queerness may be precisely the condition of being compelled to make such a choice in the first place. The aesthetic, I argue, is especially useful for embodying this stuckness.