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Evoking Leo Bersani’s notorious 1987 polemic, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Lynne Huffer strives to not only negotiate the divide between feminist and queer sexual ethics but tease out how the two intersect in her latest critical inquiry, Are the Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex (Columbia University Press).
In proposing to develop a “queer feminism” in order to define an “erotic ethics,” Huffer employs Michel Foucault and Luce Irigaray as her respective queer and feminist cornerstones of analysis. As synecdoches, these figures are functionally too simplistic for her objective, and this manifests in her cursory explanations of queer theory and feminist theory through the genealogies of both figures. And it is indeed odd that both her introduction and preliminary chapter, in which she delineates her theoretical parameters, avoids the key philosophical figure—Elizabeth Grosz—whose major writings of the 1990s and early aughts presents the kind of queer feminism Huffer aims to articulate through the juxtaposition of Foucault and Irigaray—even though she cites Grosz repeatedly in Chapter One. This results in the theoretical framework feeling simultaneously thin and redundant.
The nexus of Huffer’s erotic ethics centralizes around the politics of subjectivity, as well as the ideology of subjectivity in regard to biopower. This is where she draws most extensively on Bersani’s essay, in which the anti-foundationalist notion of a “shattered self” via sex acts constitute a type of queer politics. “The value of sexuality itself,” Bersani contends, “is to demean the seriousness of efforts to redeem it…. If the rectum is a grave in which the masculine ideal…of proud subjectivity is buried, then it should be celebrated for its very potential for death” (“Is the Rectum a Grave,” 222).
In partial contrast to Bersani’s “rectum as grave,” which, Huffer asserts, “marks the force of the negative that drives the antisocial thesis of queer theory” (one Huffer aligns with Janet Halley and Lee Edelman), the Irigarayan, catachrestic lips also demand to speak. “Simultaneously inscribing both a self-shattering undoing and a making…the lips articulate an ethics of relation that differentiates them from the pure negativity of queer antisociality.” This titular chapter is one of the more successful ones, in terms of Huffer realizing her objective of a queer feminist ethics of eros. Her reading of Irigaray, pace Grosz, exposes the anti-foundationalist threads of her philosophy, one that for nearly thirty years has been ignored and castigated as “traditional” and “essentialist.” While Huffer’s aim was to bridge the divide between Irigaray’s feminism and queer theory, adding an analysis of the ontological and specifically sexed differences between the lips and the rectum could have fleshed out the differences between the two branches of ethics, in order to highlight the material significance of the lips pertinent to a politics of subjectivity.
The middle chapters, which “perform a genealogical retraversal of queer feminism” in “literary, theoretical, and legal arenas” lose clarity because of the juggling of multiple disciplines and discourses; the collection texts utilized in analysis feels arbitrary, as does the movement between them. For instance, Jean-François Lyotard is elevated because Huffer is invested in conceptualizing an ethics of eros in the form of narrative. This is logically sound; however there is an occasional disconnect between this desire for a narrative ethic and the focus of some of the content, specifically the topic of “fisting” in Chapter Three. Fisting, contrary to Huffer’s claim, is not a “new” practice and, arguably, it is not a narrative but an event. The problematic explanation of fisting in this chapter clouds its connection to the book’s central thesis.
Huffer’s central thesis re-emerges strongly beginning in Chapter Five, “One-Handed Reading,” and remains present through the final four chapters of the book. In these chapters she turns her attention to “the narrative performance of a lesbian erotic ethics” and begins her analysis with a quite enjoyable reading of Alison Bechdel as embodying the subjectivity of the one-handed reader and “masturbating dyke.” Smartly, Huffer concludes that an ethics is not evident in the form of “a cultural product” (for what is produced through reading/masturbation?) but through the acts of reading and masturbating themselves. Here her emphasis on the form of narrative in relation to an ethics, and the inherent connection between the two, is most fully realized.
Huffer’s endeavor was monumental for such a slender volume. Her refusal to sideline Irigaray to the margins is bold, yet sensible. Are the Lips a Grave? is an admirable entry into the treacherous, liminal waters between queer theory and feminism.
Are the Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex
By Lynne Huffer
Columbia University Press
Paperback, 9780231164177, 264 pp.