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Project summary and research questions

Background

The multifarious approaches to issues of gender, sexuality, politics and culture that travel together under the umbrella of ‘queer theory’ took hold in the Anglo-American academic world some two decades ago. Queer theory found its inspiration and its intellectual origins principally in the writings of the French post-war philosophical tradition, the same tradition that, in the seventies and eighties, had led the post-structuralist revolution in the humanities. The work of British and American queer theorists, like that of their post-structuralist forebears, sits squarely and often perversely on the shoulders variously of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Lacan.

Despite the preponderance of French thinkers in its intellectual lineage, queer theory returned to France relatively late and somewhat tentatively, with the conference on ‘les études gay et lesbiennes’ organized by Didier Eribon at the Centre Pompidou in 1997. Since then academic interest in matters queer has grown in France and there is now a relatively small but expanding body of home-grown published material (for example, Marie-Hélène Bourcier's Queer Zones), as well as seminars and lecture courses which seek to engage critically with key work from the US and Britain (for example, Monique David-Ménard's seminar on Judith Butler at Paris VII). Such academic interest in queer theory as there has been in France has nevertheless largely been overshadowed by the renewal, in the nineties, of mainstream fascination with heterosexual sexual politics, in particular in response to the popular work of ‘new pornographers’ such as Michel Houellebecq, Virginie Despentes and Catherine Millet.

Research questions

First and foremost we seek to establish why it is that even though the French philosophical tradition is fundamental to queer theory, institutionally and intellectually France has been so resistant to it. Our project proposes to investigate the reasons for this resistance and to examine the ways in which queer theory has begun to make inroads into the French intellectual and academic world. The focus of the research will thus be both on specific intellectual and institutional contexts in France and on the historical, cultural, and theoretical issues arising from the ‘translation’ of French ideas into British and American contexts, as well as their re-introduction, as queer intellectual ‘feedback’, into France. The project has six interrelated sets of research sub-questions:

  1. How were ideas from the French philosophical heritage changed, developed and distorted in appropriations by British and American queer theorists? How have these ideas been further modified in the re-translation of Anglo-American queer theory back into the French context?
  2. In what ways have significant overarching political, social and legal differences in the three national contexts influenced this traffic of ideas? Is a theorization of lesbian and gay, or queer, cultures as subcultures necessarily in conflict with French Republican universalism? How is queer separatism (in the American context, the ‘anti-social thesis’) framed differently in each national context?
  3. How resistant have French academic institutions been to queer theory and why? Why have some disciplines been less resistant than others?
  4. How has queer theory’s retranslation into the French context been affected by the prominence of psychoanalysis in France? Given the animosity towards psychoanalysis displayed by some French queer theorists and reciprocated by many psychoanalysts, what role does the cultural influence of psychoanalysis in France play in the resistance to queer theory?
  5. How have different French feminisms influenced the re-translation of queer theory into the French national context? How prominent are transgender questions in French queer theory: is it accurate to allege that French queer theory has tended to eschew ‘gender trouble’ and favoured instead ‘homonormativity’?
  6. How do the three national contexts differ in their intracultural translation of queer ideas? How do they differ in moving between activist-popular and intellectual-academic contexts? Given that HIV-AIDS activism in the US played an important role in the birth of queer theory there, why was this not also the case in France? How and why have the popular as well as the theoretical forms and the content of debate over the return of unsafe (‘bareback’) sex differed in the three national contexts?

In investigating these questions the project will bring together, in a series of workshops and conferences, researchers, activists and writers from the French, British and American queer worlds, in a concerted effort to interrogate the complex intercultural traffic of ideas which constitutes queer theory. The project will thus also nurture the precarious development of queer theory in France, as well as reinflect key theoretical discussions in the discipline internationally by demonstrating the importance of sustained attention to the specificities of the non-Anglophone cultural context which has provided many of its foundational concepts.