Is the emperor of queer theory naked?

An e-mail prankster fans the flames of controversy in the inner circles of queer studies, but the anticipated war never erupts.

By Etelka Lehoczky
Published November 9, 1998 4:59PM (EST)

Recently a violent feud racked an Internet mailing list devoted to queer studies, the trendy, controversial field that's taken center stage at universities across the country. But the cutthroat, occasionally profane debate wasn't about any of the usual suspects, of which this flamboyant discipline has many. Instead, it concerned Daniel Harris, a grad-school dropout, freelance critic and author of "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture," an influential nonacademic book published in 1997.

"[Harris] is ... really mean spirited and very misogynist ... a very unhappy individual looking for as much attention as possible," fumed one writer. Another dubbed him "an old-hat Boomer blatherer." A third just called him an asshole.

The root of their ire was an article about the list QStudy-L that Harris had just published in the summer issue of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. In it, he revealed that a certain "," an ingenuous young scholar who'd flitted briefly across list users' screens back in December, had actually been none other than Harris himself. He'd been trolling, sending messages under a fake name just to get a rise out of people. And the "French subjectivist" Bonwit35 had professed interest in and quoted from, one Marie Francoise De Ricci, was likewise nothing more than a figment of Harris' imagination.

Harris created these characters to make a point similar to that of Alan Sokal, the physicist who submitted a deliberately absurd meditation on "A Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to Social Text magazine and saw it published as serious commentary. Like Sokal, Harris has a beef with contemporary theory. He believes its practitioners' dense language and numbingly minute philosophical ruminations merely disguise the fact that they have nothing to say.

"It's a false profession ... a complete deception. It's not as if there's any subject matter to what they're talking about," Harris says. "It is a series of obfuscating gestures ... a kind of ballet of non sequiturs."

The veritable mother lode in this vale of Babel, Harris argued in the Review article, was QStudy-L. There, "mad lexicographers lapse into a maniacal state of semantic hysteria ... [a] monomaniacal obsession with incoherence and 'multiplicity.'" There, Harris claimed, the participants were even more "puritanical" than "the most reactionary of humanists." Within weeks of the article's appearance, list manager Andy McIntire fulfilled Harris' characterizations better than Harris could have hoped. He put a block on Harris' account and closed the list to new members. Combined with the "pyramid of indignant e-mails" flung by irate list members, Harris wrote in a follow-up article about the fracas in the autumn Review, this amounted to a "cyberspace lynching."

Ironically, Harris' hoax caused barely a ripple when he staged it in December 1997. It dissolved smoothly into the stew of off-the-cuff assertions and passionate, underinformed debates that sloshes daily into the mailboxes of QStudy-L's subscribers. Like many academic mailing lists, QStudy-L is dominated by grad students and tenureless associate professors. The level of discussion seldom rises above what you'd hear in a bar frequented by a particularly brainy cabal of campus radicals. Harris' earnest, jargon-laden messages about the supposed theorist De Ricci fit right into this milieu. His Bonwit35 character sounded like the kind of overeager first-year Ph.D. candidate who dominates discussion sections and provokes expressions of polite tolerance on the faces of his professors.

"Do you find [De Ricci] guilty of heteronormative exclusivity?" he asked. "Are gay men's subjectivist attitudes toward their bodies qua bodies more easily inscripted because more penetrable?"

The ideas to which he referred were ostensibly from De Ricci's article "Towards a Theory of the Absent Orifice: Labial Engenderings and Oral Antecedents." "The hermeneutics of the female orifice ... present a plethora of narratives," Harris-as-Bonwit35 wrote, ostensibly quoting De Ricci. "A plurality of meaning prevails to which the male presents a suffocatingly patriarchal homogeneity of signification that prevents interpretation and, similarly, misinterpretation."

Harris says he composed De Ricci's musings using "a kind of Rorschach-blot principle. I would take the mail of other list contributors, take a clause from here and a clause from there, and graft it together with syntax." Above all, he insists, "I made no attempt to make sense ... It really was a splatter painting of phrases and catchwords."

But the De Ricci posts have a logic that wouldn't be found in a splatter painting, and a precedent, too. They sound a lot like the feminist theories of the body that were bandied about in the early '80s, when Harris was at Harvard. When pressed, he admits he was inspired by a debate in the Gay Community News at that time over whether or not lesbians should put their fingers in each others' vaginas. "I remembered that as being just the archetypal storm in a teapot, so maybe that was the motivation for the orifice stuff," he says.

Whatever their provenance, De Ricci's ideas failed to impress QStudy-L's readers. Though Harris wrote in the Review that he received "a number" of responses, in truth he netted only a bare handful -- most witheringly dismissive. One sarcastically suggested there was "a hole in her argument." Another deprecated her "postmodernist jargon," upbraided Bonwit35 for his "[un]interesting ... accusations" and recommended he do further reading. Only one person responded with unmitigated enthusiasm, and Harris would quote him extensively in the Review article. "It sounds to me as though De Ricci herself is interested in fragmenting the renewed unifying strategies of bourgeois subjectivity," the hapless contributor wrote. "Whatever happened to ... feminist metaphoricities (active enveloping, engorgement etc.) or ... cyborg or vampire imaginaries (non-porous skin, anti-organicity, surfaces -- including that which was previously thought through as internality)?"

No one responded to these questions, and the topic died -- but not before Harris, presumably hoping he might catch more fish with a fatter minnow, posted a longer De Ricci "excerpt." "I really think this ... is going to shake up the whole field of queer studies when it's finally translated," Bonwit35 declared. He was ignored.

All was quiet for several months. Bonwit35 posted a couple of messages about "transexualization," then vanished. Harris received a few more responses via private e-mail, including one from a French sociology professor who saw through his hoax. He wrote up his article about the list and sent it off to the Harvard Review's editor in chief, Richard Schneider, who accepted it unhesitatingly. "I think it's part of a very, very important dialogue," Schneider says. "It gets into the whole question of what it means to be gay, how central is sex and sexual orientation in being gay."

It certainly struck a chord with the members of QStudy-L. When the summer edition of the Review came out in June, they reacted with a vehemence that would have done Mme. De Ricci proud. "I actually bought [Harris'] book, hardcover," one wrote. "I wish I had read it before this incident, because I'm afraid the serious lapses of reason and judgment in [the Review] essay will lead me to be much more skeptical." Harris was called a "neocon," a "pseudointellectual," a "boor."

Many, however, weighed in on his side. "HOOOO-EEEEE! Wow. What a gas ... I personally thought it was a hoot," one writer giggled. "Parodies of queer theory are [made] possible by the utter flimsiness of the ideas that it trades in," another declared.

In fact, even Harris' most vehement critics echoed his basic point -- some with reluctance, many with triumph. "HELLO DANIEL--Newsflash big fella!" one chirped. "Most academics do NOT appreciate turgid prose either ... The tide has shifted. Your critique has its points but is, like, so 1992."

There was talk of drafting an "official" response from the list and submitting it to the Review (an unofficial one appeared in the autumn issue). But much of the criticism was good-natured, and that which wasn't focused on the tangential question of whether Harris was wrong to quote from QStudy-L in his piece.

There things might have ended, but Harris persisted. He submitted an explanation of his motives, egged on his critics and created a "Pomo Pop Quiz" to further illustrate the deficiencies of queer language. For many, that was a bit much. "I got frustrated with [him] because he wouldn't just shut up," says Diane Celia Hodges, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia who says she stopped subscribing around that time. "I thought the article was hysterical. I thought he did something really funny and really valuable in terms of being able to laugh at yourself. [But] he kept on with various suggestions and jokes, obviously to keep provoking people, and it's like, OK already."

On the spur of the moment, Harris even adopted yet another hoax persona. He began posting as Lisa, a "feisty lesbian" who railed against all things hegemonic in barely decipherable pomo-speak. But Lisa's identity was deduced rather quickly, mainly because, as one writer noted, her "mastery (mistressy?) of the jargon" smacked of overcompensation.

Lisa was the last straw for list manager Andy McIntire. "He was acting as a deliberate agent provocateur. He was impersonating other people. He was, I felt, in the process of converting the list into the Daniel Harris show," McIntire says. So McIntire did what he always does when he feels a subscriber is harming the list: He put a block on Harris' account. He also closed the list to new subscribers.

McIntire says he intended the block -- an electronic setting the user can reverse at any time -- to "provide a cooling-off period" for Harris and reduce the list's traffic, which was causing technical nightmares. His actions had the opposite effect: Arguments about free speech flooded the list, keeping the Harris topic alive throughout the summer.

Things had just begun to simmer down this month, when the autumn Review hit the stands. It contained a thoughtful, measured defense of the list by Tavia Turkish, a Harvard grad student who's been subscribing since January. But Harris had the last word. In "Why the Hoax Was Justified," he piled detractor upon detractor and warned that postmodernism, like the Russian madman Rasputin, would have to be poisoned, shot, stabbed and strangled before it would die.

"In the case of our own Rasputin, a far more effective means of execution is the hoax, the stake that must be driven into [its] heart," he concluded. "Hoaxes could potentially introduce an element of frightening uncertainty ... Forgery is a marvelous pedagogic tool. As someone perfectly evil once said, let the games begin."

Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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