J. Logan Smilges

Queer Silence: On Disability and Rhetorical Absence

University of Minnesota Press, 2022

296 pages

$24.95 paper, $100.00 cloth

Review by Weston Richey

Conspicuousness, loudness, and visibility have so permeated the history of queer thought and activism that the title of J. Logan Smilges’s debut book, Queer Silence, invites a raised eyebrow at the seeming contradiction. Smilges is wholly conscious of this tension and uses the denigration of silence as a rhetorical tactic among queer activists and queer theorists to propel the urgency of their thesis: that silence holds “potentialities […] to generate meaning from absence, and [that] people on the margins of society tap into these potentialities in order to build community, navigate hostile spaces, and resist forms of institutional and state-sponsored violence.” Smilges counterbalances this superficially polemical thesis by situating their work in existing threads of inquiry in queer theory, rhetoric, and disability studies. This attention to scholarly context and lineage is consistent throughout the book, on the one hand signaling a commitment to politically/ethically responsible scholarship but on the other making Queer Silence a book squarely aimed at a scholarly, academic readership.

Smigles uses their history-focused Introduction, “Unspeakably Queer,” to explore the fraught relationship between queerness and disability, arguing that gay activism has either sought to “deny any and all relationship between homosexuality and disability” or been folded into racialized and ableist narratives that center the experiences of nondisabled white gay cis men. Smilges’s historical analyses are worth lingering over not only as a deeply compelling opening to their book, but because these analyses prompt Smilges to make the core conceptual turn that guides the rest of the book: the centering of crip theory as well as the theoretical work of other marginalized thinkers, such as queer-of-color and crip-of-color scholars.

While organizationally differentiated, Chapter One, “To Speak of Silence,” is conceptually twinned with the Introduction as largely devoted to laying the foundation for the case studies of Queer Silence’s later body chapters. Where Smilges’s introduction foregrounds disability, Chapter One builds the rhetorical lexicon Smilges deploys and previews the rhetorical ideas to which Smilges returns throughout. At center in Chapter One is a “rhetorical matrix model” that unites silence with the varied modalities of queer rhetorical signification, such as “visual” signification, or, more germane to disability, “embodyminded” signification. This matrix does not act alone, however. Instead, it is animated by rhetorical energy, a term Smilges uses to describe “the flow of discourses that move around, through, and among queers.” Chapter One not only maps Smilges’s rhetorical matrix but also many of the rhetoricians and other scholars with whom they are in conversation in Queer Silence, which is quite effective both as a primer for those less versed in the history and mechanics of rhetorical studies as at tracing clear intellectual lineages for more expert readers.

Chapter Two, “White Squares to Black Boxes,” is the first of Smilges’s focused case studies, examining the queer hookup app Grindr and especially users of the app who choose to not use pictures of their faces—either a blank profile picture or a picture of other body parts. Smilges calls this choice quieting and suggests that it enables such users to “re/mis/appropriate Grindr’s dependence on visuality to engage a queer community without fully exposing their identities,” an exposure that, as Smilges discusses later in the chapter, adversely affects queer people of color, trans people, and disabled people in particular. As in the rest of the book, Smilges is careful to orient their observations around a balance of contemporary scholars while appropriating the work of older scholars, most notably Roland Barthes, for their own purposes. For Smilges, the blank or face-hidden Grindr profile at once enables the survival of Grindr users with non-normative bodies/minds and can beckon attention by virtue of its virtual, visual absence.

Chapter Three, “Queer(crip) Masquerading,” reads as Smilges’s most polemical chapter but arguably their most engaging, compelling, and fruitful. Smilges argues that the ex-gay community—people who claim to be sufferers of “same-sex attraction” as an illness—performs an (unwitting) “queercrip” self-identification, borrowing a term from Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory (2006)Such queercrip performance consists in the integration of a disabled identity into a nonstandard sexual identity—as Smilges observes, the contemporary rhetoric of many ex-gays does not consist in a conversion to heterosexuality but instead in a constant struggle against an omnipresent sexual attraction. Smilges takes pains to note that this performance “turn[s] the liberatory potential of queercrip back on itself” but nevertheless gestures at the existence of a queer rhetorical energy that, for other communities and other movements, might open up a space for “(re)constructions of identity” that might subvert rather than regress.

Trans experiences and José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications (1999) converge in Chapter Four, “Disidentifying Silence.” Here, Smilges reads the narratives of several trans elders told through photo profiles. While, of course, distinct from each other, Smilges argues that all these narratives disrupt norms in trans discourse that privilege out-of-the-closet white trans kids—with the elders either transitioning late in life, being people of color, or having their transitions interrupted. This disruption is a form of trans silence, Smilges suggests, and this silence in turn constitutes “trans-disidentification”: a divestment (whether voluntary or not) from normative trans identity that has liberatory purchase via “promises” and “gestures” at “radically alternative collectives,” even if immediate payoffs are not obvious.

Smilges’s final body chapter, Chapter Five, “Neuroqueer Intimacies,” takes “cross-movement organizing” as its central concern through a reading of several performance art pieces by disabled art collectives. The primary catalysts of this organizing, Smilges argues in this chapter, are the neuroqueer intimacies that give the chapter its name. In each of the pieces Smilges reads, they find moments of intimacy between audience and performers and between performers and each other that resist “normative legibility” defined along heterosexist, neurotypical standards. This chapter offers an unspoken answer to the implicit question that emerges from Chapter Two of what actual liberatory queercrip performance might look like.Instead of a traditional conclusion, Smilges instead offers an Epilogue, “Shameful Disattachments and Queer Illegibility,” that centers their own personal experience of a suicide attempt in college, mirroring their narrative of being subjected to conversion therapy with which they began their Introduction. The refusal of a traditional conclusion is both refreshing and fitting—touching, even—as it practices the “turn toward humility” that Smilges calls for in queer studies, following David Eng, Jack Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz (2005). Instead of any clear answer, Smilges lays bare their own experience with shame as a neurodivergent, queer trans person, and considers the shame queer people and queer theorists have felt for disability. Smilges declares that “Disability is the evil ghost that looms over queer shame” and admits that they are “not really sure what happens to a field [like queer theory] when it is confronted with the object of its own shame [disability].” But in the final lines of Queer Silence, Smilges once again echoes themself, this time from Chapter Four. Though they do not know where to go from here, they see in the silences they have traced potentiality, promise, gesture, alternatives. The seductive appeal of Queer Silence is its insistence that modes of queerness thought bad—or indeed, thought not-queer—are queerer and more robust than anyone expected. So, too, might the answer we do not have, the conclusion we have not reached.