Gay Shame and the Problematic Relationship between Identity and Knowledge

I’ve been reading Gay Shame this weekend for my Queer Theory class. It’s the publication that came out of the 2003 Gay Shame conference at the University of Michigan and it is fraught with tension around identity. I’m tempted to use the phrase “identity politics,” but there are so many different opinions on what that phrase means and whether or not we should use it just within this book, that I’m going to stick with identity for now.

Questions of identity had been circling around in my mind before even picking this book up. As a graduate student, it seems hard not to think about these questions. Identity is, of course, something I’m thinking about with my digital humanities independent study this semester – how is the identity of the discipline being performed by it’s scholars within digital spaces? One thing that identity has always been wrapped up in for me, and seems a big part of the basis for my independent study, is knowledge. In academia, I always understood identity as coming with a certain level or amount of knowledge. I consider myself an early modernist in training because I haven’t yet amassed the knowledge necessary to be an expert in the field and be identified as an “Early Modernist.” This identity is only possible based on standards that the academic world has set. I come out of training and take on my solid scholarly identity after I have written a book on the subject. That’s the only mile marker necessary to go from “in-training” to “Early Modernist” and, hopefully, Professor. But this mile marker is still tied up in knowledge. Just because the standards are artificially constructed, there’s still a certain amassing of knowledge that comes with my eventual scholarly identity.

In Gay Shame, identity and knowledge are not as intimately connected as I have come to understand them. Traub and Halperin put it best in their introduction: “Some kind of balance is being sought in a number of the contributions to this volume between the acknowledgement of identity as one source of embodied knowledge and the search for a model of knowledge in which identity figures as a mediated, contingent, and problematic (rather than self-evident) way of defining both the individual and the group” (25). I understand the first part of this quote, because it’s the definition of identity that I’ve been working with – identity as a source of embodied knowledge. Deviating from my scholarly identity example, this obviously also has to do with just life experience, which is more directly related to the arguments in Gay Shame. The tension between the activists’ statements in the book and many of the academics’ statements has to do with varying definitions of what it means to “experience” something. The academics who take part in activism, but then also step back and write about their experiences with activism in a traditional academic way, are not “experiencing” the same level of intensity that the activists are (so say the activists). Although, even here, I’m identifying these two groups under that assumption – “academics who take part in activism” and “activists.” How can you talk about identity without getting tangled in identifications?

The second part of the quote is obviously more problematic. Or, at least it is to me. What does this alternative “model of knowledge” look like? One that is not based on identity and sees identity as “mediated, contingent, and problematic?” In his contribution to the volume, Robert McRuer deals directly with his own identity as a scholar of both queer and disability studies, but also as a gay man with a father who is severely disabled by Parkinson’s disease. He talks about his “queer/disabled success story of the past few years” and how going back home to a suburb in southeast Michigan has the potential to “rewrite” that success story, presumably as something other than success. Interestingly, he locates shame, his own shame, specifically within the bounded space of that suburb – “Shame blossoms for me in that impossible space where it’s very difficult to take refuge in abstract theorizing” (182). Shame, for McRuer, then, occurs in a space where his scholarly identity collapses in the face of reality. Rather than a space with the possibility for abstract theorizing, he seems to experience shame when faced with a space where only staunch reality and face-to-face facts exist.

There is, I’m sure, something to be said here about the uncanny ability of family to produce a kind of identity disjunction for most people, but, more importantly, McRuer’s experience seems like a microcosm of the larger identity disjunction occurring within the pages of this book. The “abstract theorizing” he finds himself unable to perform in southeast Michigan is the same kind of work the activists at the Gay Shame conference accused the academics of doing. The abstract work is precisely the reason (or, probably, one of the reasons) why academic identity – identity based on certain forms of knowledge – becomes problematic when faced with the kind of staunch reality McRuer faces in southeast Michigan. So, maybe, the search for an alternate “model of knowledge” Traub and Halperin suggest is at work within this book is really just the insecurity of the academics about the use-value of their work in the face of the activist presence at the conference.

This doesn’t really untangle the second part of that quote, yet. But McRuer does suggest that shame and the reevaluation of specific past sites of shame could lead to an important “displacement” of the identities with which we are most comfortable (186). Traub and Halperin, too, urge us to think about shame as a place where alternate models of knowledge and identity formation – and identity formation via knowledge – can begin (“whether the social operations of shame can take us beyond identity as politics or wether, on the contrary, they will bind us to it by multiplying the risks to our own authority that we incur as soon as we question identity as a mode of political empowerment” (25)). So, I’m going to think more about this. And I’ll report back after our class discussion of this text this week to decide whether or not I have a better grasp of the second half of Traub and Halperin’s statement. But, in the meantime, any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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