Lesbian Studies in Queer Times

Valerie Traub, Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of English and Women's Studies

What has happened to the sign of the “lesbian,” once deeply embedded in feminist thought and now arguably almost moribund? What is the place of “lesbianism”—and indeed of feminism—within a gender-queer theoretical paradigm? What do we gain and lose if we use this “old-fashioned” rubric? Is there room for a focus on lesbianism in an academy where gender is being deconstructed and queer theory is the coin of the realm? What particular significations attach to the “L word” that leads off, but so often falls out of, the fraught but pervasive acronym, LGBTIQ? Is it possible to exploit the particularity named by “lesbian” without falling into the traps of identity and identity politics? How might a “lesbian” rubric need to negotiate the imperatives of race, class, nation, and geography? What is the role of lesbian feminism in the return to the 1980s writings of women of color within queer of color critique? What would something called “lesbian studies” or “lesbian theory” look like in the age of queer, antiessentialist interventions? What would be the consequences of bringing the concept of “lesbian” (by whatever term) back into the scholarly conversation? Conversely, what would be the consequences of letting go of “lesbian” entirely?

This program will continue the work begun in January 2014 at a two-day workshop, under the sponsorship of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (with support from IRWG), which began to scratch the surface of these questions. The concept of “lesbian”—as identity category, as scholarly rubric—is even more troubled now than it was thirty years ago, when, for example, Terry Castle wrote of a “ghosting” of lesbian representation through its assimilation into a predominantly male queer paradigm. Participants at the Radcliffe workshop sought to contest the small place accorded in “mainstream” scholarship to the brilliant, theoretically sophisticated work on female homoeroticism, particularly in terms of historical scholarship that has emerged from scholars of literature, language, and history over the past decade and a half. Despite this scholarship, “lesbian” has come to be seen as anachronistic in ways that “gay” has not. What would it mean to re-invest in the concept of “lesbian” in a post-identitarian age in ways that would be attentive to the critiques of queers of color?

The Lesbian Studies in Queer Times program will continue probing the issues and challenges raised at the Radcliffe workshop and will seek paths for collective interventions in queer studies, women’s and gender studies, and the humanities writ large. At a two-and-a-half day gathering at the University of Michigan in April 2016, the Lesbian Studies in Queer Times program reconvened participants from the Radcliffe workshop and invited University of Michigan queer/sexuality studies faculty to further discuss the challenges of theorizing the meanings and potential place of lesbianism within the humanities, humanistic feminist and queer studies.