Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

V Chaudhry and Jacqueline Stevens review Queer Theory

Bruno Perreau. Queer Theory: The French Response. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2016. 288 pp.

Review by V Chaudhry and Jacqueline Stevens

Bruno Perreau’s ​Queer Theory: The French Response narrates the invocation of a French nation’s “straight mind” allergic to “American” queer theory in order to explain recent conservative attacks on same-sex marriage initiatives in France and, through this, to question the critique of same-sex marriage and other sexual minority equality initiatives developed by Jasbir K. Puar. Perreau, in this current work and also in his previous monograph ​The Politics of Adoption: Gender and the Making of French Citizenship, observes a knot created by the reproductive and sexual politics of the French nation-state and examines it from different perspectives, tugging and pushing here and there as he uses an impressive variety of legal, psychological, rhetorical, philosophical, literary, and anthropological theories that locate the tensions in paradoxes of the reproductive nation-state, in particular, the inherently "straight mind of the nation."[1] This “straight mind” functions by demonizing a so-called American queer theory that is in fact various refigurings of work by Michel Foucault returned to France via Judith Butler and others.

Drawing on several influential theorists across disciplines, though mostly US-based or French, Perreau’s extremely well-written monograph uses the marriage debate in France to situate queer critiques of formal equality. Perreau provocatively suggests fashionable queer intellectual discourses that particularize cosmopolitan values convey biases that produce unexamined political damage every bit as harmful, perhaps more so, than that wrought by queer activists attacking homophobia in the non-Christian, non-liberal democratic contexts. In particular, Perreau takes on Puar’s creation of the concept “homonationalism” and her attack on the political movement of gay imperialism mobilized on this basis, particularly as conveyed in her response to ​Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case finding the Texas sodomy law unconstitutional.

Perreau astutely and persuasively points out how Puar unselfconsciously essentializes “homonormative” and “nonnormative racialized” subjects. Invoking and hence creating such an opposition, Perreau writes, “represents a serious oversimplification of the way norms operate. Subjectification is an inceptive process in which destruction of norms cannot be dissociated from their reproduction” (p. 124). Perreau, along the lines suggested by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault himself, proposes that Puar’s efforts to portray the process of homonationalism produces ostensibly coherent categories of identities that are “normative” and “nonnormative,” and thus fails to recognize the dynamic, contingent, and fluid subject positions that move along a continuum of power and are not rigidly fixed as “powerful” or “powerless.” Perreau suggests that in her critiques of a pseudonormal "homonational" ideal Puar imagines a minority perspective whose coherence and legitimacy is neither as monolithic nor as hegemonic as she suggests. Perreau emphasizes Puar’s seeming failure to grasp that “they”—those in power and those subjugated by power—are always subdivided; “us” is split into “them” and “us,” and “them” is always likewise artificially divided and attached.

Such a sharp critique is a relevant reminder for queer theorists in both the United States and Europe as they analyze the specific workings of power and norms in the lives of subjects. As Perreau argues elsewhere, Puar and others who set up dichotomies of normative and nonnormative miss the bar entirely, since “We are always, and forever, caught up in power relationships” (p. 138). Much like the foundational thinkers before him, Perreau highlights the many contingencies of power relationships and in so doing brings to light the stakes of and risks inherent in theorizing about traditionally marginalized subjects.

Perreau concludes with a completely unexpected and delightful use of eighteenth-century scholar Nicholas de Condorcet's insights on preference cycling to explain why the complexities of queer and identity politics are not amenable to one-dimensional categorical analyses along the lines proposed by Puar (p. 186). Perreau may be using Condorcet’s work, typically invoked for political science analyses of multiparty elections, in the first context in the last 20 years that does not induce narcolepsy. Perreau writes, “Acknowledging [the shifting, uncertain outcome] of every political system rather than seeking to overcome it through transcendental symbols [such as gay liberation or attacks on homonationalism] is a crucial task for LGBT people because, however full their legal recognition may be, they will nevertheless remain a numerical minority. It is not only a question of compensating for discrimination (the liberal approach par excellence), of recognizing cultural identities (the multicultural approach), or of allocating specific spheres (a community-based approach) but also of constantly challenging the rule itself” (p. 187). Perreau thus draws out the specificities of legal and political representation for LGBT people, thereby demonstrating the utility of centuries-old philosophy for current debates on minority populations.

In defense of his plea for a nonessentialized minoritarian understanding of democracy, Perreau writes: "Unlike certain writers, I claim no ideal generic content based on minority experiences. Like all social groups, the homosexual community is full of contradictions. . . . Rather, I am beginning here from the idea that we are constituted by the lives of the others in us" (pp. 187, 189). He goes on to assert, convincingly, that a "critique of belonging lies at the very core of citizenship. This minority democracy implies the deconstruction of the very norms that it produces, including the knowledge that stems from such deconstruction" (p. 189). Perreau’s comments are thus useful for the study not only of queer theory, itself founded upon the rejection of norms, but also of questions of citizenship, belonging, and democracy more broadly. 

[1] Bruno Perreau, The Politics of Adoption: Gender and the Making of French Citizenship (Cambridge, Mass.: 2014).