Mandy Merck, Naomi Segal, and Elizabeth Wright, editors. Coming Out of Feminism? Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, 262 pp., $US 59.95 cloth, $US 26.95 paper.

Janice L. Ristock and Catherine G. Taylor, editors. Inside the Academy and Out: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies and Social Action. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 365 pp., npl.

These works take on the Herculean task that has been long overdue in the social sciences and cultural studies, namely to outline the contours of sexualities and gender(s), and to examine the sometimes tense and always emerging relationship between “feminist” and “queer”. Both volumes make important theoretical and substantive contributions to these discussions and offer the reader important insights into what may be the most significant issue facing the disciplines: what is the place of sexuality and gender studies in the academy? Taken together, they represent a useful addition to the growing literature on feminist theory, queer theory, critical pedagogy and research, and social change. With a focus both on the everyday lived experiences of identity construction and deployment, as well as insightful institutional and structural critique, both works will be of interest to a wide audience that is familiar with the fundamental critique of dichotomous conceptualizations of male/female, straight/gay, and self/other.

Coming Out of Feminism seeks to provide a genealogy of the emergence of sexuality studies. Often seen as two independent avenues of inquiry emerging in an orderly and linear fashion of epistemological succession, the editors and contributors offer a more complex, and more realistic discussion that sees feminist engagements with sexuality, and queer encounters with heteronormativity as a sort of Gordian knot where questions of beginning and ending are more complex. Exploring these relationships more fully, two important and contradictory questions are asked. First, if, as the editors point out in their introduction, “queer” consciousness is seen as having both “come out” and grown out of feminism, then “should feminism accept that it has done its work and productively led, like all good ideas, to ways of thinking that supersede it” (p. 3)? Or is the relationship continuous and contiguous, “less one of precedence, and supersession than of continuous confrontation, positive and negative, between two bodies of thought more similar than different” (p 3)? The avenue that is pursued by the contributors to answer these questions takes to task considerations of film theory (chapter 6), literary theory (chapter 7), the theoretical and practical implications of a separation of a “sex –gender system” (chapter 2), and the problematics of the (ef)feminization of sexual politics (chapter 3). Each chapter builds on perhaps one of the most central points of the editors’ introduction, namely, that although one may question the pedigree of sexuality studies and its relationship to feminism, or even question the usefulness of so doing, the fact remains that the ties that bind each to the other can be found in intellectual, social, and political movements that question taken-for-granted assumptions about gender dimorphism and heteronormativity.

For individuals seeking a definitive “answer” to the problems outlined in this important volume, there is nothing but disappointment. As this project can be seen as a reaction against essentialist and totalizing discourses about the “nature” of feminism or queer theory, it stands to reason that, continuing with the analogy of the knot, the “answers” only lead us back to new questions. This inability to resolve these tensions is a feature of every contribution. Examples include Martin’s call for a continued complication of gender, femininity, and queerness as a site of resistance (p. 33) and Spurlin’s discussion about the interarticulations of power and social positioning in regards to identities of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation (p. 97). The final contribution to the volume brings this point home. “Any kind of categorization is in danger of lending itself to a new form of hierarchical totalization” (Wright, p 256).

The second work to be considered here, Inside the Academy and Out, is less about a critique of the relationship of gender(s) and sexualities per se, but rather an examination of the specific task of an inclusive “lesbian/gay/queer studies” in the questioning and reshaping of how people think about sexuality. Whereas previous efforts at writing lesbian/gay/queer studies have focused on the emergence of an area of inquiry, such as Coming Out of Feminism, Ristock and Taylor have chosen to ask related, but fundamentally different questions about the relationship between what can be known (research theory) and how and what can be taught (pedagogy). For them, the answer lies in a social action framework that is transformative not only of the academy, but also of the larger social world (p. 5).

The book is divided into two broad and complementary sections. The first section is dedicated to questions of teaching and research theory focused on the function of the academy and educational institutions. The main concerns addressed include the utility of education, the often confusing relationship between academic contexts and the “real” world, and the possibility and advisability of using education and research as an avenue for social change. The chapters that comprise the first section share a focus on the academy as a site of much needed resistance while acknowledging that this resistance is at once flexible and contextual. Following a largely theoretical discussion about the possibility of (un)learning about sexuality through critical pedagogy and research, the second section of this book situates these theoretical concerns in applied contexts. With a focus on a situated politics, the contributors ask important questions about the role of identities in the production of knowledge and knowledge systems, and what effect, if any, the queer enterprise of identity ambiguity, fluidity, and multiplicity may have on social change (p. 160).

Again, this work provides more questions than it does answers. At times, the authors seem a bit overly optimistic about the possibility of education and research to be changed along such fundamental dimensions without a clear articulation of the relationship of education, as an institution, to other important spheres of influence. For example, Majury’s thoughtful contribution on representations of lesbians and gays in law concludes that recent Canadian legal cases have provided “…the opportunity to raise new questions and re-examine old questions about who ‘we’ are, if there is a we, and if and how we want to define ourselves, both in legal contexts and for ourselves” (p 319). Although clearly not calling for the creation of a mythic, monolithic homosexual, it remains unclear how this voluntaristic conceptualization of community will come about. If, as the editors point out in their introduction, sexuality should be considered a major axis of power (p. 8), then how, in the game of naming the “we” (in law, politics, education, or research), do these sexual politics play themselves out?

Perhaps the answers to the questions raised by these texts “come out” of feminism—or queer theory—or both. Certainly the first step is being able to name the oppressor and all its foot soldiers. Only by considering “what comes out and what was there before”, in terms of epistemology and ontology (Merck et al, p. 8) in the context of Ristock and Taylor’s social action frameworks that “address matters of urgent and everyday concern” (p. 14) can we finally achieve what I read as the central goal of both projects—namely the dismantling of privilege and the development of cultural representations and contexts that reflect empirical fluidity and diversity.

Alan D. Brown
Department of Sociology
University of California, Riverside

March 1999
© CJS Online

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