Jill Ehnenn responds to David Agruss

Davis Agruss’s reading of Before Queer Theory nicely glosses the theoretical premises that drive Friedman’s project on the late-Victorian aesthetes and identifies implications, in Friedman’s work, for queer theory in our current moment. Agruss and I arrive at very similar conclusions: that Friedman’s project succeeds in its stated, very useful, objective of tracing an alternative genealogy for queer theory—one in which the aesthetes invite us to travel toward Foucault and Butler via Hegel rather than Lacan. And although it seems to make Agruss more uneasy than it does me, Agruss does well to note that “Friedman’s analysis seems to imagine queer subjects as possessing a certain kind of agency and freedom that seems at least partially at odds with poststructuralist understandings of the post-Enlightenment subject.”

Precisely. Because, even though we poststructuralists can identify how the aesthetes and other nineteenth-century subjects provocatively anticipate our own constructivist critiques of sex-gender ideology, and even though we poststructuralists can debunk (albeit to varying degrees) an a priori ontological status for subjectivity and/or agency, I find it difficult to read Pater, Field, Lee, and even Wilde, and not find affective and textual evidence that they (and indeed most Victorians) possessed a strong sense of agency and freedom. In other words, even though we (then and now) may be mere products of various discursive economies—even if we assert that subjectivity and agency do not really exist—largely, we function as if they do. Thinking, feeling, acting in the day to day, we experience ourselves as embodied, desiring, subjects. So, what are the ways we can marry queer theory with strategic essentialism? (Is Hegel or Lacan more useful for such an endeavor?) What kind of theorizing and action can we leverage for survival, justice, community, pleasure?

Richard Kaye responds to David Agruss

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