Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University
Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Ipek Sahinler
Poor Queer Studies opens up with two contrasting images. The first is Virginia Woolf’s famous maxim about the relationship between the intellect and the Oxbridge-nourished gut—“One cannot think well, dine well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” The second comes from Matt Brim—a half-empty vending machine representing the day’s dinner at an underfunded night school in a “forgotten borough” of New York. It is right before the queer studies class starts, and Matt Brim asks us: “how and where are meals turned into androgynously—or queerly—incandescent minds in higher education today?” These scenes sketch the contradictions between the upper-class positioning of the discipline and the poor, working-class realities of institutions. From this opening, Poor Queer Studies signals that it will be a queery about this overlooked spot within today’s already-ossified queer studies. Poor Queer Studies announces that it aims to tackle the field’s current role within the process of stratification that divides the field from itself along the lines of class and institutional status. This fresh work on queer studies declares its “difference” as it emphasizes its self-queering nature and questions its own ability to galvanize interclass and cross-institutional queer formations that do not rely on a unidirectional or aspirational model of progress.
Among the many questions Brim raises in his introduction, the inquiry at the core probes the ways we are able to rethink the work of queer studies in the context of students’ relative material need and raced or gendered precarity. Meanwhile, he considers how academics’ professional liminality and underclass institutional identity inform and potentially enrich the field, its pedagogies and theories. To answer this loaded and challenging question, Brim locates queer studies within the broader context of higher education. Brim’s point of departure is always his workplace, the College of Staten Island, which he uses as a case study for the production of queer knowledge in other places of otherness. He argues that the field cannot be separated from the large-scale institutional production of racialized class stratification. No doubt Brim is looking to needle the conformist positioning of some upper-class or well-established scholars in the discipline, who, unlike Brim, teach in privileged institutions or Ivy League schools.
The first chapter of the book is neither a sophisticated argument on queerness, nor a theoretical analysis of its scholarly literature. Rather, the author tries “to convince” the reader of the existence of Poor Queer Studies as a distinct field that “they [the readers] should care” about. To achieve this, Brim departs from his own case study of College of Staten Island and makes his case by presenting an inventory of what he refers to as Poor Queer Studies: a long list of scholars, books, articles, films, exhibitions and performances. This long list is a queer counter-archive vis-à-vis the canonical Archive of Queer Studies. When Brim writes “this whole chapter, in fact, is an acknowledgement in naming and thanking [his] colleagues” (66), it is a strategic move to make the author and his comrades visible as the precursors of the already-existing but yet-to-be-acknowledged field called Poor Queer Studies.
In the second chapter “You Can Write Your Way Out of Anywhere: The Upward Mobility Myth of Rich Queer Studies,” Brim takes a pause to examine certain queer studies workplaces, or in his words, “rich queer studies” schools. He attracts the reader’s attention to the ways that status both propels and divides the field. Meanwhile, the author is visibly bold and clear about his belief that thinking about status is also thinking about academic mobility and stasis. Within such a framework, the chapter questions how some professors move around the “places” of queer studies, how some rise and how some do not. The chapter also enacts the emotional, class-based vicissitudes of writing about all queer studies people, poor or rich, weak or strong, visible or invisible. In the following part “The Queer Career: Vocational Queer Studies,” Brim unpacks his ideas by focusing on issues such as queer classroom pedagogies, the field’s relevance to students’ future employment, the current “hyperresponsibility” for creating a more diverse campus climate, and the queer career of the “poor queer studies professor.”
While it must be admitted that the third chapter—and the work in general—does a good job in addressing these highly crucial and urgent matters, how Brim understands queer here might jeopardize the potential value of his arguments. This is mainly because he conceptualizes queerness within the limited—and limiting—framework of male and female homosexuality as he states that “[he is] interested in what Allan Bérubé calls ‘queer work,’ defined as ‘work which is performed by, or has the reputation of being performed by, homosexual men or women’” (100). This makes me question whether Poor Queer Studies is truly invested in expanding the remit of queerness, as it remains unclear how the newly proposed field plans to move beyond the mainstream LGBT+ discourse within queer studies, and emphasize class as a core element of queerness, without falling into slippery traps of homonormativity.
A unique part of the book is the fourth chapter titled “Poor Queer Studies Mothers” which is a nouvelle experimentation with a highly overlooked perspective within the field. The addition of “mothers” as a bookend, prompts a necessary, open-ended bracketing of the field. Thus, the work argues that a “poor queer studies mother” discursively queers the reproduction of the field in a class-gender-embodied key. But who are those queer studies mothers? Single queer mothers, female students with queer kids, or pregnant students who are not necessarily non-heterosexual. If so, what are their common ground? Brim notes that it is their shared will to earn a degree to attain social mobility, or otherwise, their struggle to postpone their graduation in order to escape familial pressures to sign the heterosexual coupledom contract. Along this line of otherness, Brim closes his panorama of Poor Queer Studies by drawing attention to black queer literature. This chapter called “Counternarratives” is also the title of John Keene’s 2015 work, which is one that exposes states of black queer illiteracy. Here, Brim uses literary production to offer a flashpoint for illuminating and addressing the systemic failure to teach black queer reading practices. This is also a means of radical formal experimentation in crafting literacies of black human beings in the New World that help us to read anew.
Today, where queer theory just turned thirty years old since Teresa de Lauretis first adapted the term’s colloquial usage to academia, Poor Queer Studies not only questions the institutional evolution of the field, but also raises concerns about class that have not been addressed throughout the elitist razzle-dazzle of the discipline; or in other words “rich” queer studies. Even though the work has contradictory sides, as it tends to base its worlding on dichotomous thinking, mainly expressed through the frequent use of adjectives such as rich versus poor, white versus black, non-gay versus gay, it overall does a successful job in questioning what is and what should be one’s affective attachment to queer studies today. In this sense, Poor Queer Studies is a courageous text that dares to speak with, in Jack Halberstam’s words, “low theory,” and harks back to Judith Butler’s 1990 plea that “we should let queer take on meanings” (Bodies That Matter, 28).